By Donald Margulies
New Jewish Theatre
When the Rep produced Donald Margulies' Sight Unseen a few years ago, I thought Joneal Joplin's performance as the husband of the protagonist's old girlfriend was one of the best things I'd seen him do. A brooding, unpleasant man, the character was unlike the usual Joplin role, which made the depth of his playing all the more striking. In a similar way, Bob Atchisson's performance in the same role in the New Jewish Theatre's production of Sight Unseen is the best work I've seen him do. Without crossing the line into overt aggression, Atchisson carefully shows both the man's wariness about the intruder from his wife's past and his determination to protect what's his.
Atchisson's is just one of four fine performances in the ensemble that director Tom Murray has created for this production. With her usual skill, Lavonne Byers deftly draws her character, a German journalist whose questions about Jewish elements in his work may or may not be intended to get a rise out of the successful painter she's interviewing.
At the center of the play stands the unfinished business between that painter and the woman he'd rejected 15 years earlier after an intense two-year affair when they were students. Jan Hutchison moves with a sweet awkwardness that is just right for the woman. She carefully modulates her emotions from guarded to full-blown. When the play takes us back to their student days, her eager, open, youthful charm contrasts heartbreakingly with the deliberately restricted life she's made for herself.
Mitch Herzog wisely underplays the uncertainties that drive the artist, now rich and famous, to try to get in touch again with the inspiration he had when he was young. He, too, sets up an effective contrast with his student self. Herzog handles well a couple of long, literary speeches the playwright deals him. He's less successful in giving full value to the roiling emotions that make him drive his love away.
MT Schmidt evokes a humble kitchen with a few well-chosen strokes in her basic set. But I wish she'd found a quicker, quieter way to make the play's several scene changes.
As they explore issues of art and identity, both script and performance of Sight Unseen make absorbing theater.
-- Bob Wilcox
GERTRUDE AND ALICE: A LIKENESS TO LOVING
By Lola Pashalinski and Linda Chapman
Washington University Creative Writing Program and Edison Theatre
Gertrude and Alice: A Likeness to Loving (hereafter G&A), a dramatic work-in-progress concerning the love and work of Gertrude Stein, had its premiere last Thursday and Friday evening at Edison Theatre as part of a symposium titled "Gertrude Stein @ THE MILLENNIUM." GIVING A PREMIERE OF A WORK-IN-PROGRESS STRIKES ME AS RATHER BRAZEN, ESPECIALLY WHEN THE PROGRESS MOST NEEDED INVOLVES THE PERFORMANCE, NOT THE TEXT. G&A WAS PRESENTED WITHOUT INTERMISSION, FINE FOR THE STRETCH OF AN HOUR OR SO, BUT NOT FOR ALMOST 90 MINUTES, PARTICULARLY WHEN MANY OF THOSE MINUTES WERE GENERATED BY ONE OF THE TWO ACTORS, LOLA PASHALINSKI (PLAYING STEIN), WHO DIDN'T HAVE HER LINES DOWN AND THEREFORE SPOKE WITH THE HESITATION OF CONSCIOUS RECOLLECTION. SHE ALSO FLUFFED A DOZEN TIMES, EVEN APPEALING TO A PROMPTER TWICE. THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE EVEN IN AMATEUR AND STUDENT PERFORMANCES. PASHALINSKI AND HER COLLEAGUE, LINDA CHAPMAN, ARE PROFESSIONALS.
BUT THE LINES, WHICH SEEMED TO HAVE BEEN DRAWN FROM THE WRITING OF STEIN AND TOKLAS, ARE HARD TO SAY. GERTRUDE STEIN WAS COMMITTED TO EXPERIMENTAL LITERATURE, WHICH MEANS USING THE LANGUAGE EXPERIMENTALLY AS WELL. I WOULD IMAGINE THAT MEMORIZING SUCH WRITING IS DIFFICULT BECAUSE THE SYNTACTIC RULES OF MORE ORDINARY LANGUAGE ARE NOT MUCH HELP. FURTHER, THE MATERIAL CHOSEN, BESIDES HAVING A RATHER MINIMALIST REPETITIVENESS, HAD LITTLE INTRINSIC DRAMA. MOST ARTISTS, ESPECIALLY THOSE WHO WORKED AS HARD AS STEIN IS REPRESENTED AS DOING, DON'T HAVE TIME FOR TERRIBLY EXCITING EXTERIOR LIVES, WHICH GET IN THE WAY OF THE WORK.
SO PASHALINSKI AND CHAPMAN CONCENTRATE ON THE DRAMA, SUCH AS IT WAS, OF WHAT SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN A RATHER SOCIALLY OLD-FASHIONED, ROLE-BOUND RELATIONSHIP. STEIN CALLED HERSELF "HE" AND "THE HUSBAND"; TOKLAS WAS "SHE" OR "THE WIFE" OR EVEN "THE GIRL." ONE MIGHT HAVE EXPECTED SOMEONE WHO WISHED TO FORWARD THE EVOLUTION OF LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE TO BE A BIT MORE PROGRESSIVE IN SEXUAL ATTITUDES, BUT, AT LEAST AS G&A HAS IT, STEIN WAS NOT. DOES IT MATTER THAT SYNTAX IS EXTRAORDINARY IF THE NARRATIVE IS RADCLYFFE HALL? NOT TO ME.
PASHALINSKI AND CHAPMAN ARE WINNING PERFORMERS -- THE FORMER WITH A FACE OF GREAT CHARACTER AND CHARM, THE LATTER GLORIOUSLY ANGULAR BUT WILLOWY. HAD THEY CHOSEN TO DRAMATIZE IN ORDINARY LANGUAGE STEIN AND TOKLAS' SOCIAL LIFE IN PARIS AND WHAT IS KNOWN OF THEIR PERSONAL INTERACTIONS, THEY MIGHT HAVE FIELDED A CUTE BUT SCARCELY DEEP EVENING OF THEATER. THEY CHOSE THE ARTSY ROUTE, HOWEVER, AND OCCASIONALLY BETRAYED THEIR OWN HIGH-MINDEDNESS BY CHEAP SHOTS -- SAYING "HEMINGWAY," FOR INSTANCE, IN A WAY TO DRAW A CONTEMPTUOUS LAUGH FROM THE AUDIENCE. HEMINGWAY, WHATEVER HIS FAULTS, WAS A FAR BETTER WRITER THAN STEIN AND HAD, ALAS, A MORE INTERESTING, GENUINELY TRAGIC LIFE BESIDES.
GERTRUDE AND ALICE: A Likeness to Loving, though PC, is pretentious, dull and undramatic. I'd bet the symposium was, too.
-- Harry Weber
By William Shakespeare
Arts League Players
On the evidence of last season's Measure for Measure and the current Twelfth Night, director Keith Dudding digs out the essential things in the plots and the characters of Shakespeare's plays and makes sure the audience gets them. Most of his actors speak Shakespeare's lines with a clear grasp of their meaning, if not always their music. Given the Bard's skill in constructing these two works, if the audience gets the basics, the fun is sure to follow.
You expect the performances in an amateur group like Edwardsville's Arts League Players to be uneven, and in Twelfth Night they are. The pace could be goosed up a couple of notches. Jeffrey Thoman sometimes works too hard at making Sir Toby Belch funny -- he could also work harder at getting his lines down -- and Jim Whelan's Sir Andrew Aguecheek might be even vaguer. But when the pair eavesdrop on Malvolio as he swallows the bait they've planted for him, they hit heights of hilarity. Walter Marts' Feste joins them in the mischief, and he also, with his singing and flute-playing, sounds the melancholy note that exquisitely frames the comedy in this play. Brenda Robertson-Suhre plays Maria, the inventor of the plot against Malvolio, with a fine comic intelligence and a sure sense of balance.
As Jeffrey Skoblow plays him, Malvolio's ridiculous behavior when he woos the Lady Olivia grows organically out of his ridiculous behavior when he's infatuated with his own self-importance. Tormented by Feste, Skoblow plays Malvolio's suffering with real pathos, and he plays with matching anger when Malvolio vents his spleen on those who have mocked him. As is so often true in comedy, the utter conviction with which Skoblow plays the anger makes Malvolio that much funnier, especially when the audience has already so thoroughly enjoyed the happy resolution of the confusion created by a young woman who's disguised as a young man.
That enjoyment grows out of the delightful way that Donya Adkerson as Viola, the disguised young woman, and Gina Garner as Olivia have already, in their reactions and asides, explored the comic confusions of the gender-bending bind they're caught in. Both women handle the language well. And William Sheehy plays Orsino, the man caught in the middle, with proper self-dramatizing excess.
Sprinkled with such charming touches as Feste's patches, Stacy Small's eclectic costumes provide only vague hints as to time and place. Nor does director Dudding always give those sitting on the sides of the thrust stage a clear view of his actors. But whatever its shortcomings, ALP's Twelfth Night happily captures the heart of Shakespeare's comedy.
-- Bob Wilcox
By Sherry Glaser and Greg Howells
The family whose secrets Sherry Glaser shared with sold-out audiences last weekend consisted of a father and mother in their mid-50s, two daughters -- a dim one of about 30 and her smarter 16-year-old sister -- and the paternal grandma. The evening, though not profound, was very Jewish, very funny and often very touching.
Glaser, who co-wrote Family Secrets with Greg Howells, portrayed all five characters broadly but convincingly. The transitions from monologue to monologue were smooth and elegant, especially considering that they were all made onstage -- costume and wig changes, a little makeup, and there we were with someone new.
Family Secrets opens Women CenterStage's 1999 season, to be followed by evenings with Ntozake Shange and (gulp!) Reno. These performers make the Women CenterStage series a strong offering, worth the attention and attendance of even the most fervent male-chauvinist-pig theatergoers.
-- Harry Weber