PURE POETRY: Trinity Rep’s The Dreams of Antigone.
Ever since the Greeks learned to keep their masks on straight and not bump into the statuary, theaters and theatergoers have been learning more and more about how the magic works. Mostly, it's been the same wonderful things over and over again. But that's what the thrill of theatrical discovery is all about, isn't it? Being made aware of what we've known, deep down, all along.
That's happened more than a few times over the past year around here. Here are some samples.
The fourth wall doesn't have to be broken, it can be dissolved
With her Theater of Thought, actor and director Amber Kelly has succeeded in the challenge of audience-immersion as intelligently as I've ever seen. This year she has set Stephen Belber's Tape and Cindy Lou Johnson's Brilliant Traces, respectively, in a motel room and a remote, dilapidated shack in the woods. Literally. If these performances had been in the theater's Narragansett home-base, they could not have been as immersive. But with Tape, some of us were sitting on bleachers, looking into the picture window of a motel room in off-season Galilee, listening to conversation on speakers. Some of us were inside, sitting next to an unkempt bed, amidst crumpled beer cans, as two old friends in their late 20s discussed their unfulfilled lives. With Brilliant Traces, the audience caravaned to a dilapidated cottage to witness the encounter of a man in a remote Alaskan cabin and a surprise visitor. I, for one, could feel the chill.
The stage trumps celluloid when it comes to putting us there
When we saw The Full Monty on the screen, we got our fair share of bawdy chuckles. But those of us who saw the Center Stage production, big as life, got an extra treat: actuality. Film has its own kind of intimacy, with close-ups of characters drawing our attention in ways spotlights can't. Yet there is something about flesh and blood communicating with flesh and blood in real time, in the same space, that neither Hollywood nor indie ingenuity can replace. When Joey Elrose as Jerry Lukowski, too proud to take a job as a security guard, and Michael Johnson as his smart-aleck pal Dave Bukatinsky conspire to put on a Chippendale show with middle-aged volunteers, love handles be damned, there was no substitution for being there.
Don't throw the theatrical baby out with ye olde bathwater
Before naturalistic acting became the standard, the inflated John Barrymore style of emotional speech was pretty effective with audiences, who would matter-of-factly accept its hyper-reality. Thank goodness we're not still so attuned; we might be electing William Jennings Bryan. Nevertheless, presentational theater, with actors addressing us — and not conversationally but with inflated language, like poetry does — is a different animal. Let's hope it never becomes extinct. Badly written or badly acted, such scenes can be stem-winders. But Trinity Rep's The Dreams of Antigone powerfully demonstrated how purposeful such a technique can be. Written by Curt Columbus and directed by Brian McEleney, the adaptation from Sophocles would not have succeeded so well at gaining our empathy or drawing out our feelings without this tool, this theatrical magnifying glass. Of course, Fred Sullivan Jr. and Rachael Warren were portraying King Creon and a woman compelled to bury her brother, defying a royal edict — they were not Emily and Mr. Webb in Our Town. Still, it's nice to know, with the Trinity Rep reminder, that with the proper inducement we can shake off the shackles of irony.
Emotion-packed stories don't have to be sentimental
Speaking of intense acting, even on the page William Gibson's The Miracle Worker all but sheds sparks in recounting the knock-down-drag-out relationship between deaf, dumb, and blind Helen Keller and her indomitable teacher Annie Sullivan. At 2nd Story Theatre, Amy Thompson and Joanne Fayan lit up the place in a definitive production, directed by Ed Shea. Although the relationship was volatile and even physical, if anything the acting was understated. Since we knew the stakes, the actors could go about honestly reflecting the characters' feelings, so an excruciating tension pulsed through the play even in quiet moments. Marvelous, affecting work.