Thursday, June 13, 2013
Theater review: Reflecting on FIT productions The 1947 Ford and Ask Questions Later
FIT offers a diversity of stirring theater experiences.
WHITE ROCK LAKE The 1947 Ford by Ellsworth Schave, One Thirty Productions
Continuing across the existential landscape traveled by several of the plays during the Festival of Independent Theatres, One Thirty Productions brings us deep into the heart of both a Southwest desert and our constant need for self-examination, with questions of our meaning and purpose thrown in for good measure.
The 1947 Ford is the third of a trilogy of plays from Texas playwright Ellsworth Schave. One Thirty Productions fancies his works and has produced several of them over the years.
Schave stories tend to stick around our state, writing about Texas romances, the Brazos River, and more.
And he seems to like automobiles a lot, writing about a turquoise Pontiac, a Texaco gas station, and now a 1947 Ford. Except that none of these plays has much, if anything, to do with those things. Most are dream-like, fantasy pieces delving into mystical places of his imagination. Part Twin Peaks, part Twilight Zone, Schave jumps right into the middle and insists that the audience keep up while the action washes over them like the ripples of a cool Texas lake.
In this play, the audience finds themselves in a desert at sunset, the deepening colors fading into thousands of stars as an unseen car pulls up and a cowboy sets up his supplies for coffee and an evening underneath the huge sky. Using the name Roy Bedichek (an actual Texas naturalist and a tongue in cheek insert for Schave), Bud is a reporter, gone undercover, and looking for an elusive “country club of souls” to be found somewhere out there. Sitting on the limb of a dead tree, a mocking crow prophesies Bud’s fate while a desert hummingbird seduces him into slumber. Upon awakening, he is given eternal choices on how to find God, and his search might stem from a drug-induced coma, a dream, or a journey into the afterlife.
Vagueness is Schave’s game and the options remain plentiful.
For a festival production, in which sets must be as minimalist as possible for easy breakdown and storage between performances, Theresa Furphy’s design was rather complex and strikingly beautiful. A full-width back cyc, flowering cacti, large boulders and painted cloth tarp representing the desert floor placed the audience squarely in the play’s location. Her creativity took a small leap with the addition of tree canopies tracked out from the wings and a pulley system to raise a doorway and move large urns into position, instantly changing desert to resort oasis.
All of the little details, such as ancient markings on the boulders and the fire ring suddenly turned into a sundial added to the aura of the play.
Marty Van Kleeck’s costumes ran a rather wide gamut for such a play. Bud donned typical cowboy clothing of shirt, jeans, boots and hat, all in even hues of beige. Old Man, seen in the country club, had on similar beige tones with the addition of a pale yellow fishing vest. Where Van Kleeck had more fun was in costuming The Hummingbird. A knee-length gown of shimmery copper/maroon with glittery shoulder and neck feathers and decorated leggings made for one beautiful bird. The addition of a Commedia dell’Arte long-beaked face mask lent an ominous yet se*ual connotation.
No credit was given for lighting but the varying shades of sunset, slowly fading to a deep blue, and the quick blackouts with each sudden realization of Bud’s journey, effectively set the audience in the various locations and helped keep the action understandable. The star formation on the back cyc was simple yet breathtaking, and for a short while looked like a projection on top of the lighting, expanding the feeling of a universe of starlight.
FIT’s canned curtain speech message with Bob Marley’s “Everything's Gonna Be Alright” set a humorous tone for what was to come. Kristin and Robert McCollum’s audio production placement of coyote howl, heartbeat, wind chimes and hospital equipment beep accentuated scenes in their simplicity.
Cameron McElyea made a nice-looking man out in the wilderness. His voice had an easy gait to it, making him a good choice to portray “everyman” in the existential travels of the play.
Though his lines were delivered a bit unnaturally, as one who was reading rather than living them in the moment, he relaxed into the story after awhile and gave more realism to his character.
Larry Randolph had a smaller but significant role as Old Man, one of a supposed many to find their way to the country club. Movements and memory were equally slow and unsteady and Randolph added snippets of fear and regret to his character, therefore layering richness to Old Man’s, and our own, search for answers.
The Hummingbird, or the seductress in the play, was portrayed and danced by Mary Margaret Pyaett. Lithe in body and flowing naturally around the set, her character commanded both attention and mystery.
Though the playwright never divulged much about any of his characters, other than Bud, The Hummingbird somehow made sense in her role as storyteller, shaman and siren.
The Crow, perched in the tree, the joke being one of Bud’s tin coffee cups by his side, was portrayed by puppeteer Stewart Milkkelsen. A couple of bare arm appearances were quickly fixed, and The Crow’s uproarious, auditory cackling was hilariously voiced by David Meglino. The 1947 Ford is a journey, not a destination play. One will not walk out with definitive answers to questions that may or may not have been asked.
I can be most certain, though, that further discussion will arise, with a theatre-going friend or other audience members. And that is the style of theatre I relish most, the kind that continues on long after the curtain call is given and the quietness of the theatre sets in.
Ask Questions Later by Meggie Spalding, Rite of Passage Theatre Company
I’m going to admit it right up front. I had much reservation in seeing Ask Questions Later, the Rite of Passage Theatre’s Company contribution to the Festival of Independent Theatres this season. All the advertising and brief synopsis snippets spoke of its story about high school gun violence. And I just did not want to go, as much as it is a relevant choice for our troubled times and therefore important in a theatrical sense. You see, I abhor guns, militia, abusive gun rights, and so much more. That is and was my albatross in seeing this one-act play. But I went.
Part of Rite of Passage’s mission statement is a “dedicat(ion) to the cultivation and realization of ... thought-provoking works...” They could not have landed more squarely in the middle of thought-provoking if they tried. Ask Questions Later is a significant piece, and by the play’s conclusion, asking questions -- not later but now -- is exactly what each audience member should be doing.
I don’t know why I am continuously surprised at how stunningly, in the hands of a good “storyteller”, art imitates life. This play’s title is pervasive in today’s headlines, including the IRS’ “Accuse First, and Ask Questions Later” scandal. The common phrase, heard in many an old cop show, is “Shoot first and ask questions later.” How sadly appropriate in regards to the ghastly numbers of random shootings across our country these days.
Three people – two high school students and a literature teacher – are placed in a triangle of coming of age, scandal and extreme violence. Naiveté, manipulation and subjugation form another deadly triangle.
The opening scene is in reverse chronological order, leaving the audience with a possible assumption that lingers throughout the entire play. Isaac is a brilliant young man, uneasy with himself as much as with his school, who ditches his classes in favor of playing violent video games. His next door neighbor, Haley, uses her cooking to become his friend when she hadn’t been that interested before.
Enter Mr. Logan, their literature teacher, whose marriage is on the skids and whose interest in both his students goes in two decidedly different directions. Haley uses both her sudden fascination with video violence and her feminine sexuality to her advantage, ending in mistaken identity, misplaced trust and a young man’s plea for understanding.
The set design was thankfully simplistic, using one or two removable or rolling pieces to represent school “lounge”, living room or bedrooms.
The lighting remained neutral, with only a few blackouts and fades for scene changes.
Properties were also minimal and made significant by their usage, with plastic containers and paper plates for the meals Haley brings Isaac, remote control for television, handheld devices for video gaming. The two scenes with a huge assault weapon made my heart pound, my stomach ache and my skin crawl, but I looked at them as objectively as I could, allowing them to have power over me as much as they should within the context of the play.
As the play develops, there are two sequences in which Haley dances the same steps twice. First time, completely alone, she moves around the entire stage in classical and modern dance, next with simple ballroom steps, hands held up as though coupled with a partner, and finally gyrating like a stripper at a bar. The second time, same steps, she dances alone, with her teacher and then for Isaac.
Haley’s dancing was intelligently choreographed by Anastasia Munoz and said more about the young woman’s own coming of age than any dialogue ever could.
Playing teacher Kendall Logan, Ian Ferguson looked every bit the part of a man in turmoil and conflict. A bit pudgy and disheveled, he represented all those teachers who are reduced to just getting through the day, let alone teach anything of worth to students who have socially and mentally moved beyond their reach. His monologues directed toward but not to the audience were all encompassing in Ferguson’s characterization of this weak man who chose the outcome of a horrendous tragedy to explain his life’s shortcomings. As written, he both awakened and repelled me, the apparent intention of the playwright, director and actor.
Porcia Bartholomae was a wickedly conniving Haley Winninger, supposed friend to Isaac. Her sweet-natured characterization held many secrets, all in her facial expressions, glances and body movement. Though young in age, Bartholomae held her own in the more demanding scenes and dances, boldly revealing Haley physically and emotionally, and I applaud her acting maturity.
I was most appreciative of Dante Flores’ acting ability, his matter-of-fact ease in portraying the confused nature of the young Isaac, and his maturity in delving into difficult to play territory. I found myself listening to Flores’ every word as the character of Isaac held the key to understanding the current nature of today’s youth, and his words scared me – “It’s easier than you think (to make a bomb)”, “I stopped learning at school – it’s all online now”. With lines like that, Columbine, Oklahoma City, 9/11 and Boston come flooding to mind.
Kelsey Ervi guided her three actors with a firm hand and solid intent. Each subject was pointedly dissected and observed. Nothing was held back and yet Ervi also knew to what extent her actors could handle the work so that there were no awkward moments of indecision or inability. I appreciated the candor of her direction and the message of the piece was convincingly presented.
At the end of the play is a line about “the level of responsibility”.
Within that phrase encompasses many things, and the audience is left to ask about responsibility, about acceptance, about understanding or even realization.
Ask Questions Later is a powerful work that attempts to answer a few of those questions but leaves so much more unsolved. The theatre company’s name, Rite of Passage, also leaves me to wonder about the passages we are sending our youthful generations down, and to what end.
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