Saturday, November 24, 2018

Almost Maine Shows Real Fusion at the Fusion

John Cariani’s Almost Maine play is a definite crowd pleaser and a quite perfect college level play. It balances gentle humor, heartbreak, and nostalgia quite evenly, while profiling in particular how easy it is to fall into and out of love and how easy it is to fail to send the cues about your feelings that will keep a relationship developing in a positive direction.   

This group directed production at Monmouth College’s Fusion theatre from Dr. Vanessa Campagna’s stage directing class was a totally enjoyable night at the theatre. Most impressive was the way in which the multiple student directors took their scenes and yet presented a seamless stylistic front in a situation that might easily have developed into a series of disjointed individual segments.

Let’s start with kudos for Patrick Weaver’s set and lighting design. Weaver’s rolling wagons did have a few movement difficulties, but they provided a smooth gliding transition between scenes.  The backlit cutouts of trees and the flickering pinpoints of light in the ceiling kept our eyes on the Maine woods of the setting and provided a constant reminder of the cold sparkle of a winter night. This was supplemented by good seques between the areas of the stage and nice use of juicy primary accents. The costumes also caught the Northwoods flavor nicely.

The show is perfect for young actors and the meaty roles are reachable by their developing talents. I loved seeing some new faces and was particularly enchanted with the winning freshness of Tori Chaffee as Ginette.  A special maturation congrat is also due for Will Best who has lost the stiffness of some of his earlier work and gave a remarkably deep performance in the “Where it Went” segment directed by Amanda Green.  All of the directors and their casts seemed sensitive to the use of pause and listening and reacting to clues from their partners.  Diction was as crisp and clear as the Northwoods night and there was no resorting to over dramatizing in the intimate Fusion space.

Thanks for a lovely show. Arizona will be calling this winter, but you can rest assured I’ll be back for Oliver in the spring.   

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Review of It's Only A Play

It’s Only A Play by Terrence McNally

This minor Terrence McNally script, from the late  80’s or early 90’s was performed by a Galesburg group called Sugar High Theatricals. They appear to have a close knit resident company and do mainly light comedies and various kinds of musical revues. The title places it squarely in a genre I would call “Theatre Process Comedy.“ These plays concentrate on the humorous  tribulations of theatre production. They focus on theatre people who are producing plays, writing plays, auditioning for plays, performing in plays, critiquing plays etc. The type can vary from darkly philosophical like Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, to musicals like Chorus Line, and farces like Noises Off and Lend me a Tenor. Most depend, at least to some degree, on familiarity with the process, recognition of theatre lore, name dropping, and of course the delicious pleasure of seeing carefully orchestrated live events going horribly wrong.   
It’s Only a Play fits nicely into this category. A budding young playwright has just had his debut Broadway opening and the company has gathered at the opening night party to wait for the all important reviews. While the party proceeds downstairs, with all sorts of celebrities dropping in, the upstairs bedroom hosts visits from the key participants. Thus we have the playwright’s old best friend, the play’s producer, the director, the leading actress, a major critic, and finally the playwright himself. They are joined at times by a loony aspiring actress and an acerbic New York cabbie.
Of the major characters only Matt Newman, as the uncertain playwright, and to some degree the Critic and the cabbie, played by the sisters Agar, seemed to keep their performances under reasonable control. The rest of the cast, I am sorry to say, was over the top most of the time.  They shouted, wildly paced, and gesticulated too broadly for the tight audience configuration. Director Gary Mustain could have done a better job of tamping down the more extreme performances. I have to wonder if the seven or eight patrons sitting in front of us who voted with their feet at the act break were just worn out by being buffeted at close range.
The modern setting was simple and reasonably functional. It represented a bedroom in a New York City apartment and featured in addition to the beds a few tables to hold some telephones and  props. The screens off right supposedly contained the rest of the apartment and off left represented a bathroom whose sole function seemed to be as a holding pen for a barking dog that was used for a running gag. Unfortunately the beds that dominated the room seemed to push much of the action downstage into an even tighter proximity to the audience. 
McNally’s script does not help either. It shows its age with some less than politically correct characterizations about non New York audiences, Native Americans, and gays. The theatrical name dropping is from a bygone era and probably went over the head of many younger attendees. Walter Kerr and Bernie Jacobs, for instance, have not been household New York names for years.
I’ll close with a final comment on the performance space itself. With no permanent space to call home, I assume the company settled for the small ball room of the old Kensington Hotel. It is not a theatre in any sense of the word. I know that Peter Brook has called an empty space the ideal performance venue, but this one does present significant challenges for visibility, sight lines, lighting, and entrances. A few screens at the sides provided the wings, but actors still had to enter from the rear of the house to reach the screens. Three lighting instruments on a small tree were the only stage illumination. The seating chairs were placed on the floor without risers. The set proper was pretty much on the same flat floor. Thus, beyond the first row, the audience basically could see only the top half of the actors and by the time you reached the fourth row, where we were, it was constant craning to see much of anything. An arena arrangement might have helped visibility, but that would have required more lighting instruments and positions and may not have been within range for the company.
As my wife said, the show is basically kind of silly. I would add that the over the top acting did little to help out. Still credit is given to any group that sets out to do live theatre and the show did have some amusing moments. My basic recommendation is that the actors not try quite so hard to be funny. Slow down and use the face and eyes to dig out the laughs. Play a bit more deftly and reduce the use of the sledge hammer—especially when playing so close to an audience.  

Monday, November 05, 2018

Pitchfork Disney Scares the Hell Out of Us

The Pitchfork Disney by British playwright Phillip Ridley had a reprise at Monmouth College’s Wells Theatre for two performances last week. We missed the performances last year while we were in Arizona so jumped at the chance to take a look at the work of this new, at least to me, playwright.
The music was loud and bouncy as we crossed the lobby and treked through a floor littered with what appeared at first to be little rubber grasshoppers, but later turned out to represent cockroach carcasses. This was definitely going to be different. We passed through the auditorium and took our seats on the stage. The two walled set was positioned cornerwise and three rows of folding chairs surrounded it on two sides. There was now no doubt that we were going to get an up close, sweat gland experience of what was described by one London critic as “in-yer-face-theatre.” The two walls in front of the seats depicted a dirty dilapidated living area in an English city. There was one curtained door to other parts of the house and a battered entry door secured by locks, bolts, chains, and a bar that looked a lot like an old cricket bat. The furniture was sparse and unmatched--a table, some chairs, an old sideboard, and one easy chair. This was not upstairs or even downstairs at Downton Abbey. It reeked of poverty and decay.    
I’ll jump ahead now and say that we were emotionally exhausted at the end of the play. For me it was an often jumbled, but still prophetic, phantasmagoric jumble of dystopian eventualities.  Professor Doug Rankin’s director’s notes were accurate. He wrote that playwright Ridley has called his plays “tuning forks” and that they vibrated with what is going on at the time.
For me the signal emotion was “fear.” All of the swirling themes come back to that barred door. Whatever the problem, and there are multiple possibilities facing the sadly inadequate denizens of this room, brother and sister Presley and Hayley Stray are faced at every turn by an existential fear of attack by murderous  forces. They are clearly “strays” ripped out of the world of early Rock and Roll.
Although my tuning fork was vibrating on the current Trump attempt to jack up violence in his base by creating the threat of foreign invaders charging out of Mexico to rape and pillage, the fear could just as well be of a nuclear cataclysm. The characters often look out of the single window, positioned dead front, into a desolate and still smoldering cityscape. This is shades of Sameul Beckett’s Endgame.) That exterior view could also represent an environmental disaster that has finally killed off almost all living things. (Shades of Trump again.)
Whatever may be outside what is inside is the stoking of hatred  all Latinos, Blacks, Jews, and anyone other than aggressively straight white people. Intimacy seems only to be achieved by force rather than respect or sympathy.  A final straw is provided by the fear that more and more of the populace will face these new challenges by drugging themselves into a stupor. The powerful will encourage this because where there is no consciousness there is no resistance. All of these themes can be seen and felt in Pitchfork Disney.
Miles Rose as the caring brother (Elvis) Presley Stray gives an all out tour de force performance for a young actor. His eyes make him seem a docile puppy when he receives or remembers, however falsely, kindnesses from his parents or the threatening visitor. When he erupts it is into frenetic fits and writhing on the floor.  
Amelia Chavez plays (Bill and his Comets) Haley Stray, the often comatose sister. She has gotten lost at the zoo (think of Albee--indeed think of Fridley mining the whole of Esslin’s Theatre of the Absurd from Pinter on.) Haley dominates Act I by literally exuding the fragility of the unprotected in society. Unfortunately this Laura has no menagerie--only pills and a “dummy.” (a British term for a baby pacifier.) Unfortunately she spends most of final act asleep under a blanket. I wish she were given a bit more to do other than be a symbol of victimhood on all levels.  
Cosmo Disney is the third character on the scene and seems to represent the evil intruding class. As played by Declan Crego, he is a friendly charmer one moment and a Pinteresque threat the next. To keep the popular music and entertainment idea afloat, he looks like a suitably androgynous young David Bowie. He enters in a funereal black coat that he soon sheds to reveal a devilish red sequined jacket. He says he makes a lot of money by eating cockroaches and other creatures at night clubs. Both he and Miles Rose execute superior pantomime when the bugs on the floor in the lobby creep into the action on stage. Even mimed, eating bugs is about as creepy as it can get. Cosmo, like Presley, alternates between strangely passive behavior and violent outbursts. He lulls Presley into believing that he will guard and protect the sister and sends him off with his henchman Pitchfork (Richard Eyre) to buy chocolate and medicine. Presley is barely out the door before Cosmo is raping the comatose Haley. Trust is dangerous and futile in dystopias. All that is Disney is turned on its head.  
The final character is labeled the Pitchfork Cavalier and played by Richard Eyre. He is Cosmo’s henchman and driver. He may be  the most frightening of all the characters. As an actor he is a ferocious hulking presence complete with a coal black Hannibal Lector mask. He is a blunt force killer absent all rational communication. A Cavalier is often seen as a dashing mounted soldier, but this scary hulk can only sing a few notes of a song after struggling to climb atop a chair. Tis very curious and bizarre to think here of another Absurdist, Eugene Ionesco, and his play The Bald Soprano, which disintegrates into gibberish at the end. Eyre's silence is somehow more moving and gut wrenching than all the others who spew torrents of words in endless monologues.
He is a pitchfork serial killer who stabs children and leaves behind a Mickey Mouse doll. In this world we are battered with a traumatic reversal of the Disney mythology. There are no gay songs, bright colors, or lovable blue birds here. The walls are gray, the violence is gruesome, and we are in the world of Grimm and Hansel and Gretel are being chucked into the oven.    
Kudos to the pasty green light that often accompanies looking out the window and to the steamy red that accentuates the rape scene. Also a congratulation to whoever managed the contrast between the black Lector mask and those soft white hands with black nail polish on Richard Eyre.
You cannot truly like this play. It portrays a world so dark that some might doubt there is any valid solution. Should our coming election put no check on the Trumpian dystopia, we may indeed have to consider trusting no one, barricading ourselves from the outside, and taking our pills. I must admit I would like to see a bit more light at the end of the tunnel. Act II goes on too long. Monologists are at heart too taken by their belief that audiences want to hear everything  they have to say.