23 August 2015

A Steady Rain, by Keith Huff

This production was fantastic. A Steady Rain seems like an extremely difficult play to perform because there is very little that happens—most of the action is narrated by one or both of the characters, Denny and Joey. We get their competing perspectives and their competing versions of events, and in the gaps between these two narratives we can piece together a series of events in the lives of these two Chicago policemen and childhood best friends.

Because the play moves between monologue, duologue, and occasionally dialogue, the two actors need to be able to transition clearly but casually between these different narrative modes. In this production, directed by David Beach, Sean Marko (Denny) and Travis Teffner (Joey) navigated these competing narrative modes seamlessly. While both occupied the stage space for the majority of the performance, it was clear that sometimes they spoken only to the audience, and sometimes spoke to one another.

In particular Marko’s performance as Denny brought a dark intensity and power to the stage, as we watched the character slip from casual, child-like roughhousing and political-incorrectness to a deeply rooted violence—we watched the police officer become worse than the criminals he hated. What made Marko’s performance so powerful and menacing was that he embodied the potential for violence—the threat was visibly there and it came to permeate the stage space. Even the smile was a veiled threat of violence.

Teffner’s performance was equally powerful, but Joey as a character and the performance were more rooted in a human struggle (as opposed to the more psychopathic Denny). Joey struggles to find his own identity, which has been so formed by the dominance of Denny since childhood, in a world where Denny’s casual violence and racism bring punishment rather than reward. Teffner’s shifting performance showed the struggle the character goes through—the need to escape from Denny’s toxic influence, but also the guilt and remorse about betraying his friend.

The comparatively bare setting and minimal props helped focus this performance, putting the two actors front and center, which really let the strength of their performances do the work. And the strength of these two performances was probably the best thing the production could have led with. Everything—the setting with just a table, chairs, a tea cup and whiskey bottle; the effective and meaningful shifts in lighting—were intended to give Marko and Teffner the opportunity to be spectacular, and they definitely were.

Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare

I’ve seen a number of Shakespeare plays performed, and the Rustic Mechanicals’ production of Much Ado About Nothing was nothing to write home about. The show was good, but not great. I suppose it is about what one should expect from what is basically a community theatre’s touring group performing in a park.[1]

The setting for the production is described in the playbill as “Post World War I – Wine Country,” which seems to be an era that has lately captured the imagination of Shakespearean directors (I’ve seen at least two productions in the last five years, and at least one film, that used an early 1920s aesthetic). The costuming was good, it looked pretty accurate—though the obviously toy rifle carried by one of the soldiers weakened the mise-en-scène more than it helped. Performing in a park, the choice to set this production in “Wine Country” made sense because they could account for a natural backdrop of WV forests, which visually meshed with the few vines and trees-in-pots that were part of the staging.

In acting terms, I feel the strongest performances were given by Doug Seckman as Borachio, and Steve McElroy as Claudio. Seckman performed the nefarious henchman as a kind of New York gangster figure, including the accent. While not menacing as a gangster, his performance followed in the tradition of bumbling gangster henchmen (e.g., the gangsters in Kiss Me, Kate). And for me the strongest parts of McElroy’s performance were the overacting scenes to convince Benedick that Beatrice loved him. McElroy’s strategically over-the-top performances in these scenes were the most convincing action of the show because it seemed like that was one of the few moments when a performer genuinely launched him or herself into the role, rather than having the performance visibly mediated by trying to perform rather than be the character.

The other performance I have to mention is Aaron Harris’ Dogberry. I was not originally sold on the loud, awkwardly laughing, gasping, Texas-accent cowboy sheriff performance, but as Harris spent more time on stage the character really grew on me. While definitely not the direction I would have taken the character, Harris took the decision to perform that way and ran with it, creating an awkwardly good performance of one of the Bard’s odder characters.

[1] The Rustic Mechanicals are a touring group dedicated to performing Shakespeare’s works; the company is part of the Vintage Theatre Company, formed to produce theatre in West Virginia.