Sunday, August 31, 2008

Theatre Droppings: Visions of Hell edition

I visited two of the hottest shows in town at the moment, two extremely different pieces in very different styles, but with one element in common. Both plays reflect their own particular version of Hell.

2007's Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, Rabbit Hole, is finally making its regional debut, in a dynamite production at Olney Theatre Center. Along with Doubt, Pillowman, and others, it is responsible for a recent resurgence of interest in the contemporary dramatic play. David Lindsay-Abaire departs a bit from his usual fantastical concept (he wrote Kimberly Akimbo and Fuddy Meers, among other off-beat items), and has written an intimate portrait of a family attempting to emerge from the paralyzing grief caused by the death of a child. This seems to be a piece which, in the wrong hands, could come off over-wrought, and ripe for a Lifetime Movie (Citypaper's rave review mentioned the same thing, including the horrifying thought that the leading role would in that case be played by Meredeth Baxter). Olney's production avoids all the sentimental traps, and is a riveting success from start to finish.

The cast is led by Paul Morella and Deborah Hazlett as the parents of the lost child. Theirs seems a very realistic portrait of a marriage splintering into pieces; I never for a moment doubted they had been together for years (in the interest of full disclosure, Deborah is a close friend, and is yet another illustration of that phenomenon I've mentioned before: my friends always seem to be the highlights of their shows! Inexplicably, I take full credit). Megan Anderson and Kate Kiley play other members of the family, and both are very effective. Megan is saddled with a lengthy, "story" monologue at the very top of the play, during which the audience is trying to get used to the odd acoustics of the theatre. We can hear and understand everything, but it takes several minutes to adjust to the sound (the actors are wearing body mics). I have experience performing in this space (without mics), and can verify that the acoustics at Olney's New Theatre are not what they should be. Even with Rabbit Hole's box set shoved all the way downstage, it was deemed necessary to amplify the voices of this cast of very experienced stage actors. Why does it seem like so many brand new theatres have such lousy acoustics?
But I digress.

Kate Kiley, playing a role somewhat too old for her, nevertheless brings a welcome blast of humor to the role of the grandmother. Kate is an acquaintance of mine from the Shear Madness fold, and I was very impressed with her ability to deliver laugh after laugh while remaining absolutely connected to the truth of the moment.

The fifth character in the show, the teenager who is responsible for the death of the child, is played by Aaron Bliden, a student actor who hits all the right notes. His uncomfortable scene with the grieving mother is a terrific example of understated acting. Watch his finger tapping the plate.

Rabbit Hole is certainly one of the best things I've seen onstage in a long while, so I'm glad that the Washington Post (the "money review") sent Nelson Pressley to review it. He gave it a well-deserved rave, as has everybody else, but had the Post's Peter Marks been in attendance, there may have been a different outcome. Marks has lately revealed an impatience with plays about dysfunctional families; his review of Woolly Mammoth's Maria/Stuart pretty much flattened the piece, primarily because of his personal boredom with the premise of the "whacked-out family". The group currently living at Olney is surely dysfunctional, so Marks may have made mincemeat of this delicate, understated depiction of what can surely be described as a living Hell.

Studio Theatre has another regional premiere, containing a very different view of Hell. Jerry Springer, the Opera is exactly that. It is a huge production of operatic proportions, both in cast size and in size of cast. What is it about opera singers? Why are so many of them, shall we say, large of girth? Does all that extra body mass help hit those high notes? Whatever. I very much enjoyed this production, even as I had the same problem I have had with every single opera I have ever attended:

What are the words?

It must take a better trained ear than mine to determine what the singers are actually singing; such attention is paid to the length and purity of the note being sung, that the meaning of the actual word is often lost to me. And that's a shame in this piece, which is a wicked spoof of American popular culture. Studio has assembled a huge cast, numbering in the dozens, of singers and dancers, playing the low-life participants of a typical Jerry Springer episode, and the low-life audience members egging them on. This cast is so large, I couldn't possibly single them out, but I can report that the show is anchored by the only two Equity actors in the cast, Bobby Smith and Dan Via.

Smith has been on my radar since I first saw him at Studio in the leading role in A Class Act. He gave a wonderfully understated performance in Caroline, or Change several years ago, so I was doubly impressed with his flamboyant turn in Jerry Springer. He's a hoot as both the warm-up man for the Springer show, and as the Devil himself. Yep, in this show, the inevitable happens, and Jerry Springer goes to Hell. And why wouldn't he? I'm sure the couple sitting next to me would have applauded that fact, if they had stayed beyond the intermission. I think they may have been initially offended by the language of the piece; the F word was used so often it became meaningless (probably the authors' intention), and the C word was bandied about as well. Perhaps the pre-op transsexual was a turn-off, or the fat guy in the diaper, or any number of other deviants populating this world. I imagine, though, it was the line of tap-dancing Ku Klux Klansmen which finally drove this African-American couple out of the theatre, never to return.

Though I enjoyed the show, I found it to be overlong and a bit redundant. Yeah, we get it: Americans are fascinated with sleazeballs. But I suppose that is keeping with the usual structure of an opera: we are told the same thing four or five times in a row before moving on.

I have to commend Dan Via, who is currently playing the title role. I arrived at the theatre expecting to see Larry Redmond as Jerry, but apparently he could not continue with the show through its extension, and Via replaced him. Dan looks a bit young for the role, and is sporting the skankiest wig currently seen on any DC stage, but he is actually quite a gem. Act One is dominated by Jerry's freaky guests, but Via never fails to land his dry punchline. Act Two takes us to Hell, where Jerry finally takes center stage, and he is forced to host the most sacrilegious program imaginable. I give kudos to Via, who, throughout this sequence, managed to maintain a likable quality which I have never found in the actual Jerry Springer, who remains repugnant.
I came away from Jerry Springer: the Opera impressed with the magnitude of the piece, but curious: it seems inconceivable that the Studio Theatre Money Folks would allow 20 primo seats in the house to be occupied by members of the cast, thus robbing the theatre of thousands of dollars of income over the course of the run. It's a wonderful example of artistic need taking precedence over financial considerations. That is not the reputation the Zinoplex has around town. I wonder what those dozens of non-union actors, who are dancing their hearts out, singing their guts out, and stripping down to their underwear for every show, are getting for their efforts.
For me, THAT is a version of hell...

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