02 June 2018

Rumors, by Neil Simon

Despite Neil Simon’s popularity and reputation, this was actually the first time I had seen (or encountered) a Simon play, and I can definitely appreciate why people enjoy his works so much. Rumors is a hilarious show about a set of upper class New Yorkers trying to protect their friend from a scandal they themselves don’t even understand and having to go to extreme lengths to keep up the web of lies.

This was also the first show I saw at Nittany Theatre at the Barn in Boalsburg, PA. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the theatre space was very nice (though some air conditioning wouldn’t go amiss). As you can see from this photo of the set, the space itself was nicely intimate, which worked really well for a play like Rumors, which is set at a dinner party.

Directed by Mike Knarr, the Nittany Theatre production was incredibly funny, with excellent performances from all of the cast members. In particular, Rob Arnold as Ken Gorman, Tim Balliett as Lenny Ganz, and Hilary Appelman as Clair Ganz were probably the standout performances as they all had distinct and well developed comedic styles. Arnold’s great strength was his delivery, which blended a flustered sense of purpose with confusion, especially after his character was deafened. In responding to what he thought he was hearing, Arnold got a lot of laughs by confidently moving forward based on what he thought he heard, while the audience knew that something completely different had been said.

Balliett took a different comic tack, with high energy frustration and exasperation as his driving force. Lenny Ganz is quicker than the other guests to anger and since he spends much of the play running around trying to keep up the appearance that there is no scandal at this party, his distress is understandable (plus he crashed his new BMW on the way to the party and got whiplash). Balliett’s strongest moment was probably when he impersonated Charlie at the end of the play and explained to the police in passionate detail the series of events that had taken place surrounding the two gunshots from earlier in the evening. He brought so much over-the-top energy and passion to the performance that we—along with Officer Welch (played by Rod Egan)—bought the story, even if we don’t believe it.

In contrast to these higher energy performances, Appelman was a cool, sophisticated, and snarky voice throughout the play. Clair Ganz’s purpose in the play is largely to provide sarcastic commentary on what’s going on, and to throw out occasional comments which complicate the other characters’ attempts to keep the situation under control. Appelman perfectly embodied this character, with he detached, split-second delivery of one liners.

One of the few weak points of the show was some of the more overt physical comedy. There are times where characters trip entirely over pieces of furniture and end up either splayed on the furniture itself or sprawled on the ground. This seems like a weakness of the writing that the cast did their best with. As an element of the play structure, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense that this group of refined, upper class people would periodically tumble over sofas and ottomans.

01 April 2018

The Laramie Project, by Moises Kaufman and the Members of the Tectonic Theater Project

The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project is an amazing, gut wrenching play. It is documentary theatre, built around the murder of Matthew Shephard in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming. Matt was a university of Wyoming student who was brutally beaten by two locals and left tied to a fence post in the desert to die. Matt was killed because he was gay. The murder and subsequent trial of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson drew international attention, focusing the US and the world on the issues of homophobia and violence against LGBT people.

The Penn State School of Theatre’s production, directed by Steve Snyder and Wendell Franklin, did an admirable job with an exceptionally difficult play. The Laramie Project is difficult not only because of the subject matter, but because it requires a fairly small number of actors—10 in the Penn State production—to perform a large number of roles. The raw material for The Laramie Project came from over 200 interviews the members of the theatre company did with Laramie residents, journal entries from the actors’ trips to Laramie, public announcements from the hospital about Matt’s deteriorating condition, and trial transcripts. The actors then attempted to reproduce pieces from those original sources as accurately as possible, interweaving different voices and opinions.

What was really impressive about the Penn State production was the smooth regularity of the performance’s flow. Because the play is a kind of montage of interviews, journal entries, and other primary texts, it would be easy to leave gaps or breaks in the performance, but the actors moved without pause from one segment to the next, so that the show felt almost conversational. It is a town and a theatre company trying to talk through horror and guilt, trying to make sense of the brutality of the Matt Shephard murder. The transitions were mostly marked by minor costume changes, with a basic black wardrobe for all characters, a shift from one speaker to another could be marked by putting on a flannel shirt or jacket, by donning glasses, or putting on a hat. Sometimes these changes could happen off stage, and the actor would come back on with their minor bits of costume, but sometimes the change had to take place on stage, which required the actors not only to change costumes in real time but to completely shift their performance styles from one speaker to the other. For instance, at one point the actor playing the bar tender who was among the last people to see Matt alive has to transition on stage to playing Matt’s academic advisor at UW. The transition is visually accomplished by removing the bar tender’s flannel and putting on the advisor’s eye glasses. But at the same time the acting style shifts from the eager, somewhat flamboyant bartender to the suave and reflective academic advisor. These kinds of shifts happen continually both on and off stage, and the performances reflected these complex dynamics flawlessly.

Interestingly, the flow of the transitions moved so smoothly that the lighting always seems to move a beat behind. An actor would begin speaking, and then the lights would come up on their part of the stage, so that the first words of almost every segment were delivered in darkness. As the show went on and maintained this timing throughout, it was evident that the gap between the spoken word and the lighting was an intentional artistic choice. Particularly for a play the ends with a description of the sparkling lights of Laramie, and how Matt Shephard had always loved them, this choice to bring up the lights on action already happening evokes the hope the play tries to create—a bringing of light to a dark and horrible murder.