05 December 2015

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, by Stephen Adly Guirgis

WVU Lab Theatre presented Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, directed by Brittany McGonegal, which stages an imagined trial in Purgatory to remit Judas Iscariot’s eternal damnation and allow him forgiveness for betraying Jesus. For me, it is a play of two halves. The first half was a theological comedy, which I thought was spectacular; the second half dropped into personal issues and conflicts, abandoning a lot of the theological questions and questions about biblical history and authority raised in the first half.

The performances were mixed, with some actors giving really strong performances and some less so. Some of the consistently strongest performers were Nick Tabidze playing Yusef El-Fayoumy, and Kristen Aviles as Satan. Both actors went for their roles full bore. Nick perfectly blended charming, sniveling, flirtatious, and smarmy into a delightful presentation of the oily prosecuting attorney El-Fayoumy. And Kristen brought out a range of Satanic performances, from the seductress to the bureaucrat, alternately proclaiming her (perhaps paradoxical) love for God and shredding the egos of anyone and everyone in the courtroom.

The one acting technique that really fell short for me that pausing. between. clauses. This happened a surprising amount (I think it’s a technique young actors are currently learning to emphasize that a speech/monologue is heartfelt and significant). The most noticeable example was in Butch Honeywell’s (played by Cody Hively) speech near the end of the play addressing Judas in hell. I’m sure the speech wasn’t as long and boring as it came across, but Cody paused. after. every. clause. Rather than moving quickly and surely through the speech, which would engage the audience and allow them to follow along with a narrative that moved smoothly, the whole thing felt broken up and pointlessly blocky. Pausing between clauses can be a great way to produce emphasis, don’t get me wrong, but when it’s done between every clause throughout a monologue it loses its impact.

The other big issues were with staging and lighting. I suspect (without having read the play text) that Guirgis wrote out the stage plan, which seated a jury of actors in the front row, a judge center stage, witnesses to stage right and left, and the prosecution and defense attorneys’ desks to the sides of the jury. Unfortunately, because the two attorneys were closer to the audience and had to direct their attention upstage to the judge or witness, they spent a decent amount of time with the backs to the audience. Nick was less guilty of this because his performance was animated, but Jordan Crow, playing defense counsel Fabiana Aziza Cunningham, spent large portions of the performance with her back to the audience.

More problematic was the lighting however. Most of the main stage space was lit properly, but a good portion of the play’s action took place off the main stage. The jury’s chairs and the attorney’s desks were lit only with the light filtering down from the stage, and when characters walked through the rows of audience members (which happened periodically to punctuate trial scenes) the lighting was non-specific low house light. When these roaming performances took the characters to the front of the audience space but not onto the stage itself, they ended up performing important portions of their lines in perhaps the darkest space in the entire theatre, between where the dim house lights faded out and the stage lights began.

Stupid Fucking Bird, by Aaron Posner

As someone who studies adaptation, I was excited to see a production of Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, which reworks Chekhov’s The Seagull. Posner’s play regularly draws attention to itself as an adaptation, specifically in the Russian dramatic tradition, and attempts to metatheatrically engage spectators in issues of narrative construction, expectations, and generic norms. In that sense, it is a rather clever play.

Where Stupid Fucking Bird fell short was in the polemic. Perhaps this is Posner’s attempt to emulate the Modern Drama with which Chekhov is associated or perhaps Posner is generally a polemical playwright, but what felt like large chunks of the play involved characters (especially Con) berating the audience or other characters for not understanding his vision of art, the need for new art forms, why we should move beyond existing forms, and so on. For me, the long monologue chunks didn’t engage me, they bored me. Particularly in the monologues about the nature of art, the ideas felt stilted and clich├ęd, as though written by a first year art student who sees him or herself as leading a revolutionary aesthetic movement that everyone else is to stupid and decadent to appreciate.

On the other hand, the sections of the play moving through dialogue were very good. Dialogue helped develop the characters in a way I felt most of the monologues failed to do, and it was in the dialogue that we saw the wit and humor Posner is capable of.

The production itself—directed by David Beach at the MAC in Morgantown, WV—was very good, with a strong cast giving good performances. To me, the most engaging performance was probably Nicki Davis, playing Dev. Nicki was funny and engaging, and mastered self-deprecating gesture and presentation. The character itself is a good part, and Nicki drew out the character’s fundamental characteristics—a general contentedness, even when anguishing over unrequited love, and an upbeat attitude belied by the suffering of those around him.

Con, the protagonist, was performed by the always excellent Travis Teffner, who gave us a full does of the impetuous and petulant character. Travis spent most of the play either sulking, pacing, or shouting, and was the most directly confrontational with the audience. He demanded answers to his questions, and berated us for expecting the characters to act in certain ways (specifically, the expectation that he, as a character in a Russian play, would shoot himself at a specific point, and that after the show our first reactions would be to check our phones for missed texts).

The other cast members gave strong performances, including David who stepped in to play Sorn because of an emergency for the regular actor. The MAC’s theatre space is moderately nice, but the stage is good. For this show, the stage space was divided between three spaces—the bar on stage right, the platform center, and the table and chairs stage left. The movement of the action between the three spaces gave the sense of flow and development, a sense of shifting and developing action.

08 October 2015

The Clean House, by Sarah Ruhl

I have really enjoyed all of the Sarah Ruhl plays I’ve seen, read, and taught, but this was my first encounter with her play The Clean House. I wasn’t much sold on the first act, but after the interval the show really picked up and I saw the kind of dramaturgical skill that has always impressed me in Ruhl’s work—principally, that her characters are always complex and there are no clear heroes or villains, and that her feminist message is more situational than didactic. Don’t get me wrong, the first act was riotously funny, but I felt that the meat of the play’s message came in the second half.

The play tells the story of four women whose fates intersect. Matilde is a Brazilian housekeeper working for Lane, a successful doctor married to a handsome man named Charles. But Matilde doesn’t like cleaning houses. She wants to be a comedian. And she spends much of the play trying to think of the perfect joke, though she also worries that if she finds it she will die (because her mother died laughing at a joke told by her father). On the other hand, Lane’s sister, Virginia, loves cleaning houses. It gives her a sense of purpose, and a way to combat the sense that she may have wasted her life as a housewife. So—without telling Lane—Virginia begins to clean Lane’s house instead of Matilde.
While this is going on, Lane finds out that Charles has decided to leave her for a breast cancer patient named Ana. Lane is understandably devastated, but Charles and Ana seem unable to comprehend her suffering. Charles and Ana want Lane—and Matilde and Virginia—to be a part of their new life and to share their happiness. But their happiness is short lived, as Ana’s cancer returns and she refuses to go to the hospital. Charles goes to Alaska to seek and elm tree whose bark he believes can cure Ana, and Lane is browbeaten by Virginia and Matilde into caring for Ana. The four women more or less move into Lane’s house, and establish a kind of commune around caring for the dying Ana. When she knows there is no hope for a cure, Ana requests that Matilde kill her by telling the perfect joke so that the sick woman can die laughing.

The WVU Theatre production of the play, directed by Jim Knipple, was very well performed and kept the audience laughing the entire time. Although every performer was good, far and away Kristen Aviles—playing Matilde—was the funniest. Her delivery ranged from the comically lethargic to the implicitly filthy, and although many of the jokes were presented in rapid fire Portuguese, they always got a laugh from an audience probably few if any of whom understood the language.

Monica Hanigan (Lane) and Amber Gonzalez (Virginia) also gave excellent performances. Though they weren’t as overtly funny, both actors played through a range of emotions—from rage, to joy, to exasperation, to despair—with expert skill. Wilhelmina McWhorter (Ana) gave a complex performance as the ‘other woman’ without being tinged with guilt. The character walks a fine line between being a hated archetype and being a suffering victim, and McWhorter performed that balance really well. Glenn Muir’s performance as Charles probably didn’t extend his range as much as the other actors, but he did a bang up job portraying the closest thing to a peripheral character there is in the play.

In terms of the production itself, the set was nice, with two levels that divided the action in purposeful ways. But what I really liked was the subtle way in which technology was used to augment the performance without distracting from the actors’ abilities. A subtle projector was used to help the audience navigate through changes in location, and to explain what was happening when Matilde concentrated on thinking of the perfect joke. In the past few seasons WVU has produced some shows where I feel the degree of technology—flashing lights, multimedia, competing sound systems, etc.—have distracted from the actors’ performances and from the storylines. For my (probably in this sense fairly conservative) money, the light touch of special effects in The Clean House was a much better choice.