Thursday, January 23, 2014
Theater review: Dedicated actors elevated weak script in An Act of the Imagination
The cast did brilliant work.
IRVING You may not know his name right off the bat, but I promise you will know some of his work. Bernard Slade created eight television series, including The Partridge Family and The Flying Nun. His writing introduced the memorable character “Aunt Clara” on the television series Bewitched. He wrote the 1975 Tony Award-winning Best Play, Same Time, Next Year, which he later adapted for the big screen, earning him the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. There are many other notable credits to his name worthy of recognition.
ICT’s MainStage Irving-Las Colinas’ production demonstrates that team work, talent and dedication can overcome even the weakest of material.
Written material does not require over-the-top suspense or insanely hilarious words or actions to garner an audience’s attention. It requires an ebb and flow, peaks and valleys. It requires intellectual stimulation and sophisticated, intelligent storytelling. Slade’s reputation and prior successes set a high expectation level. Sadly, Slade’s written material seems only to offer a flat and narrow road with a few bumps along the way.
The entire action of the two-act play takes place in Arthur and Julia Putnam’s living room located just outside of London, 1964. The set design and dressing fit nicely into this era. There are a few challenges within the set that warrant mention. The sofa at center stage was too low to the ground for the great deal of action it saw. Players standing up from this sofa were lucky, if able, to do so gracefully. The steps at center stage seemed a significant hindrance. They were too tall, and even the longest of legs did not hide the extra effort required to mount them safely. The soft lighting design was comfy, yes. However, when the substance of the written material is lacking, the creativity in the design of everything else must be elevated.
On the other hand, the effect of hardwood floors on the stage gave a sophisticated charm to the home. The furniture and dressings stage left begged to be moved to center and might have solved some of those aforementioned issues. I grappled with the size and design of Mr. Arthur Putnam’s desk. If any single piece of furniture might have held a grand sense of presence, certainly it was Putnam’s desk. However, the design offered only a tiny desk, nothing special, whether in size, design or décor, almost merely suggestive. With those few observations out of the way, the living room of Arthur and Julia Putnam was inviting and functional.
Tailored or casual, the costumes were lovely. Deep, lush color palettes on the Putnam family played well. Detective Sergeant Fred Burchitt’s suit seemed somewhat unofficial and less than commanding of his position. The bright and tailored frocks for Holly Adams enhanced her youthful elegance. The gypsy-like attire for the brief entrance of Brenda Simmons worked perfectly into the flow of things. Brooke Carmichael’s frock officially pulled together a nice overall design by Barbara Kirksey. My favorite piece of costuming was the dressing gown Julia Putnam wore. The crimson color complimented Welch’s features and the white lace detail only deepened the crimson color.
Arthur Putnam is a successful mystery writer who just finished his one and only romance novel, which includes steamy sex scenes and even an adulterous affair. As noted by his wife, Julia, this material is a far stretch from Arthur’s regular work. His wife is not the only person to question the material in this new tale. Arthur’s son and his editor also find it quite unusual that he has produced a work so far from the normal mystery novel for which he has become famous. But, well, he has, and therein lies the impetus for the real action of the play to begin.
Throughout the evening, we were introduced to a handful of characters who wove together the lackluster plot. There was some build up, some expectation and some easily jumped-to conclusions, a minuscule amount of suspense, and then resolution. Tiptoeing through each thinly crafted layer, the one thing that seemed to hold the audience’s attention was not the story but rather the actors’ performances.
Neil Rogers as Arthur Putnam seemed the ideal choice, what with his commanding voice and tender grace of movement. His grand stature, easily perceived as looming (or is it?) lends itself nicely to the mystery and certainly added levels to the work that the dialogue simply did not. Rogers’ timing, posture and grace pulled you into his world without question. Before you had time to even contemplate or reason, you were on his side. SCORE for Rogers!
Behind every successful man, circa 1960’s, wasn’t there a loving and supportive bride? Arthur had just that in his wife, Julia Putnam, played smashingly by Lucia A. Welch. My first impression of Welch as she entered stage filled an already assumed prim image. Her petite stature played swimmingly against Rogers’ gentle giant appeal. Welch seemed the fittingly apropos wife to Arthur. She encouraged his work, engaged his momentary episodes of internal (yet verbal) dialogue and encouragingly chuckled on queue. Welch’s petite nature did not mask the dynamo she was as she consistently kept the pace moving.
Blake Owen makes a mild entrance into the story as Putnam’s son, Simon. His presence was slight, and his effectiveness even less upon first meet. While Owen did build into the breadth of Simon Putnam as written, there seemed much more that could have been done to up the overall drive of the plot as well as his own character’s development. I appreciated the nuances and timing found in scenes between Simon and his parents. Owen’s scenes with Welch were his best of the evening and garnered him the most attention from the audience.
Joe Porter created an endearingly dry, sharp-witted character in the role of Detective Sergeant Fred Burchitt. He brought in a welcomed pick-me-up to the pace upon his entrance. However, the players on stage during Porter’s first scene fell victim to the material. The information was conveyed. Check. The curiosity slightly peaked. Check. The tad bit of humor was on target. Check. Even still, something was lacking, through no fault of the players on stage.
Holly Adams, played by Rae Harvill, portrayed a young and inexperienced assistant editor. The character of Holly Adams seemed at first to be plot related. Light and airy, she came in with a positive outlook, encouraging and supportive as one would expect from one’s editor. Harvill was a lift to the overall mood and brought a bit of light into the room upon her initial entrance. Gestures and movements of any sort, however, were awkwardly stiff and unnatural. It might have been Harvill’s interpretation of a business-like demeanor but the level of stiffness played like an extreme case of stage nerves. If the former, than hats off to Adams.
Upon character Brenda Simmons’ rushed entrance into the plot, Caitlin Mills-Duree had a story to tell. But once told, questions asked and answered, the audience was left wanting for more. Mills-Duree flit and fluttered about the stage and had the audience’s attention, indeed. However, her exit from the scene was awkward and felt unnatural.
Karen Matheny as Brooke Carmichael commanded attention upon her entrance and held the audience’s attention until her exit. Though a smaller part, Ms. Carmichael’s role was very clear and well defined. Kudos here to Slade, Matheny’s determination to clearly express her information was easily achieved and well done.
Director Sue Birch had a challenge before her from the get-go. She chose an extremely gifted cast to bring the humdrum script to life. The actors performed well, due in great part to Birch’s direction.
As artists, however, there is a certain level of creative interpretation that can be taken freely. Where something falls flat, artists will typically do something to give it legs, to give it wings. That creative interpretation should, however sophisticated and intellectual, stimulate those ebbs and flows, elevate those peaks and valleys. It seemed to me that the level of creative interpretation was not achieved, that there was nothing stimulated or elevated beyond each player’s individual performance.
We are told not to judge a book by its cover. So don’t judge a play by merely its words. Otherwise you might never see what it could be. There was a ton of brilliant work on all sides of production in MainStage Irving-Las Colinas’, An Act of the Imagination, and the effort showed.
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