Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Theater review: Amphibian Stage Production’s Fiction begs a differentiation between romance and reality
The only thing harder than dying with a secret would be living with one.
FORT WORTH Playwright Steven Dietz is a master of presenting relationships, with all their twists and turns, in all their raw glory. Never one to mince words or string the audience along, he instead plunges right in and reveals the unaltered connection between character and audience that keeps him one of the most widely produced regional playwrights we have in our country. He is also a master of perception, and the unexpected twists that come with how we see both the characters, and ourselves, at the end of the play.
In his 2002 work, Fiction, now playing at Amphibian Stage Productions, Dietz delves into a recurring theme of several of his plays, the effects of personal betrayal and deception. Shifting from past and present, real or imagined events, fact from fiction, he cuts straight to the heart and the level of dishonesty in the most intimate of relationships.
From Amphibian’s notes, Fiction concerns “best-selling authors Michael and Linda Waterman [who] treasure their honest marriage, until a harsh twist of fate compels them to read each other’s diaries. Between the lines, a secret liaison with a mysterious stranger surfaces, forever altering ... [the] delicate balance of fact and fiction.”
As the play progresses, and we are continually required to shift our perceptions and judgment, Dietz turns another corner, opens another box of secrets, making the audience take pause and reflect on their own inner most secrets and desires.
Under the guidance of Director Mary Catherine Burke, and the scenic vision of Bob Lavallee, the play flowed organically, like a leaf floating down a stream, sometimes smooth and clear, sometimes tumbling over rocks and whitewater, turning every which way in the involuntary journey to its final resting place. Shifting constantly between past and present, with many addresses directly to the audience, in other hands it might have become a confusing mess. Burke clearly defined each step, whether forward or back, along the way, and her and Dietz’s intent in balancing the fact from the fiction was never more evident. The grace in which each of the three moved through the space was proof of Burke’s complete understanding of the play’s aura, and her complete trust in her actors.
Bob Lavallee’s set design, unlike some of his others with bold color and stark lines, here was a calming breath of serenity. Open platforms and long steps of hardwood flooring with rough-hewn edges, and simple pieces to delineate location, allowed the actors to move easily from place to place without that jarring “we’re somewhere else now” feel. Two tall, open-faced bookcases/room dividers stood upstage with various objects of beauty and remembrances set into each of the boxed shelves. It was an interesting choice to separate the audience from those objects with the use of an opaque scrim on the downstage side of the bookcases, as if to fence us from the couple’s lives, their memories.
In Dietz’s interview with Liz Engelman, he noted, “I seem to have an awful lot of plays about memory and identity.” Talking to Burke after the play, I asked about the actors’ placement of used props on the bookcase shelves as they exited. Turns out, she too was working with the idea of memory, the coffee cup from the café, the beer bottle from the bar, a bagged lunch or spoon, all left slightly onstage as a visual to all the fact, all the fiction.
The complete back wall glowed in vibrant jewel tones of fuchsia and teal, pastel blues and lavenders, with each shift of time, recollection, and reading of the diaries. Symbolism nut that I am, I attempted to find meaning in the change of hues and tones, but came up empty handed with each. Color is about feeling and what it emotes in us, and the lighting choices by Frederick Uebele hopefully left the audience with the same sense of dread, peace, hurt and regret that I felt throughout the play.
David Lanza’s sound design was a subtle indication of location or mood - background crowd noise at the bar, a bell at the beginning of Linda’s college class, the sound of scribbling as both writers jotted their thoughts on paper - each supported the interpretation of each scene or moment. He also used music for pre-show and intermission that both Linda and Michael would have chosen as their favorites.
Continuing with the natural, organic nature of the production, costumes by LaLonnie Lehman complimented the back lighting with shades of teal, purple, and the warm layers of sweaters, cardigans and jackets, as if to comfort and protect the characters from the others’ lies and pain. Thankfully staying in one outfit, occasionally removing or adding only a top layer piece, the clothing distinctly presented each character’s personality through all the periods of time in their relationships.
The simplicity of properties chosen by Cosmo Jones also complimented the easy flow of the scenes – a coffee cup, no saucer, represented Paris café; opened beer bottles for corner bar, an attendance book for classroom, two boxes of journals, an x-ray - each was used and shelved without fanfare or fuss.
The three actors in Amphibian’s production of Fiction had the natural give and take of those with long relationships, whether ongoing or occasional. One would think that would be basic in the world of acting, and that would be a misconception. Well-rehearsed and memorized lines, recited back and forth, are more the norm, unfortunately. Going deeper into the character’s persona, and the true relationship with each, is where mere acting graduates into art. Each of these actors found the depth of ability to expose themselves, and therefore their character, within the confines of the script. Their give and take, the ease of how they spoke, how they moved around each other, their eye contact and unseen glances, were so natural as to make one certain these people had know each other for years.
Lydia Mackay, especially, held court on natural delivery. You instantly knew who Linda Waterman was, from Mackay’s body language, movement and stance to her courage letting the audience see her own vulnerability through Waterman’s eyes.
Linda’s husband, Michael Waterman, had such deep lies and truths intermeshed in his life as to be confused between reality and fiction. Michael’s personality lives on a continual loop of jokester/enabler/charlatan, spewing the one-liners or repartee to keep people at bay, including his wife. I understand both Burke and Cabe’s decision to portray the character in that capacity, but it also runs the risk of having Michael seen as aloof, an action that doesn’t allow him to truthfully connect with Linda, and/or Abby Drake, the third important part of their relationship wheel. There were several moments in the play I wanted Cabe, as Michael, to “get real," to break down the barriers and expose the vulnerable side of the character, and therefore the actor Cara L. Reid had the sometimes difficult to act task of portraying “the other woman,” the one who upsets the seemingly perfect marriage.
As the character who, as we discover by the end of the play, had the least amount to hide, who was the innocent amongst the deception, Reid played Abby Drake with a straight forward acting style, never leaning to seductress or manipulator, becoming possibility the only “real” character in the play. Rather than “writing in” parts of her life, Drake lived her life frankly, allowing or disallowing outside forces to motivate her. Reid played Drake with an aura of truth, and the catalyst of the play’s reactionary scenes.
Fiction asks, again and again, if two people should ever reveal their most guarded secrets to each other, and if they are willing to face the consequences of that action. As audience members, Amphibian Stage Productions’ version of Fiction unflinchingly asks us to reflect on our own lives and relationships. I dare anyone to not take, however briefly, inventory of what they remember as, or have made themselves believe is, fact. Fiction, as it turns out, can be a relative thing in the minds and hearts of those we think we know most. One of character Linda’s favorite artists is Janis Joplin, and as the song plays out over the actors’ bows, we heard the words loud and clear, “Take another little piece of my heart ... break another little bit of my heart ... you know you’ve got it if it makes you feel good.”
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