Sunday, August 17, 2008

Theatre Droppings: Catch-Up Edition

Circumstances beyond my control have prevented my seeing as much local theatre this summer as usual. Primarily, my continued involvement with the staged readings at the Washington Stage Guild has occupied most weekends. I've been honored these past weeks to be included in these events, which have taken on a special meaning with the unexpected death of the group's founder, John MacDonald. The company is soldiering on. Our usual routine has been to gather late Saturday afternoon for a quick reading of the play, and even quicker discussion. Afterwards, some huge piece of animal carcass is tossed on the barbie, side dishes and drinks are whipped out, and a relaxed evening is had by all. The following day, Sunday, the cast gathers to read the play for anyone who shows up, once in the afternoon, and again in the evening. So, I've added to my previous list of roles which I had fun playing but would never attempt in a full production. In addition to those several roles, I played a young minister who questions the reality of the devil, when a magician arrives on the scene and spooks everybody. That play, Magic by G.K. Chesterton, could be a very effective piece fully staged.Also, I had an absolute ball playing a man decades younger than myself, a nincompoop who was attempting, without success, to swipe an inheritance, in a new translation of Goldoni's The Amorous Servant.

So, I have a good excuse to be a little lax in my theatre-going of late. I was able to pop back out to Totem Pole Playhouse a second time. I had previously been out to see a bunch of coconuts playing around in Lying in State, a play which was far beneath their talents. The show this time was a reliable old chestnut that everybody has heard of, but nobody ever does, Bell, Book, & Candle. From the film version, I was under the impression that the show had gangs of people running around the stage, but in fact, the play has only five characters. My buddy Ray Ficca was playing the comic foil, the brother of our heroine who is, incidentally, a witch. I enjoyed this production much more than Lying in State, as it was exceedingly well written, well acted, and well directed. It's said that this play was the inspiration for the long-running sitcom Bewitched, and that certainly seems likely. One aspect of the play which most people don't know, however, is that it is sometimes taken as a coded play about homosexuality. Its playwright, John van Druten, was gay (he's better known for his play I Am a Camera, which provided source material for the musical Cabaret). In B,B&C, van Druten populated his Manhattan scene with an underworld of undesirable creatures who in appearance were just like everyone else, but who held dark secrets. They even gathered in their own special nightclubs. One of the characters is a confirmed bachelor, and another is named Queenie. All very surreptitious, don't you think?

Today, I drove across the river to see Keegan theatre's Stones in his Pockets. The national tour of this piece rolled through town several years ago, and Rep Stage produced it more recently. My buddies at Wayside Theatre did it only a year or so ago. I didn't see any of those productions, so I was pleased to get the chance to catch the show here. I have only seen a handful of Keegan productions over the years. They do an eclectic mix of small, intimate pieces, new works, and big, blowzy musicals with gangs of people (they just closed Man of La Mancha yesterday at a different location). Usually, their work has an Irish bent, but that is not a hard and fast directive; one thing I admire about the company is their determination to do whatever the hell play they want, regardless of the logistics, or the timing, or whatever. Thus, 1776 graced their boards a couple of years ago, in a production with which I had some trouble. I noticed the same sort of trouble with The Hostage, another of their large-scale productions. The company is non-union, which gives them the freedom to tackle these big shows on a shoestring, but as happens in such instances, the audience gets one or two strong performances in the leads, surrounded by performances somewhat less than. (I've noticed the same phenomenon at Washington Shakespeare Company.)

But anytime I've caught one of Keegan's smaller shows, I've been impressed. They did a bang-up production of Picasso at the Lapine Agile a long while back, and their current effort is even better. On a blank stage with only a few chairs and a few boots, Keegan's cast of two creates the inhabitants of an Irish village being invaded by a Hollywood movie crew. The show is a delight, and the players are adept at the differentiation of character so necessary in a piece such as this. Matthew Keenan, who is new to me, lends a lot of heart to his roles, particularly the central role of Jake, and the walk-on role of Sean, a character which greatly affects the tone of the piece. Eric Lucas, whom I have enjoyed several times before at Keegan, is equally fine as Charlie, the second protagonist, and is also a hoot as the film's director and first AD.

I know I can be rather a prig about companies such as Keegan, sniffing that they should be on the road to becoming union houses and all that, but when I see one of their intimate productions, like the one described above, I can't really fault their direction too much. They are doing a lot right.

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