Thursday, October 22, 2009

Theatre Droppings: Hysterical Bleakness

I had some fun this past weekend, attending two local productions which were just beginning their runs. The reviews have been spectacular for both, but being the cool, considered guy I am, those raves didn't sway me. I like reaching my own conclusions, thank you very much.

The fact that I had many friends and acquaintances in both casts did not influence my opinion of the shows in the least, I assure you. But that phenomenon proves true again: my friends are always standouts in their shows.

I know just about everybody connected with Hysteria at Rep Stage, except that naked girl in act two (oops. Spoiler Alert!), and my great buddy Steve Carpenter directed the show. I have very little working knowledge of Sigmund Freud or Salvador Dali, and since Hysteria takes place during a meeting between the two, I thought I might have some trouble. On the contrary, the show was an intriguing mix of slapstick farce and heart-stopping dramatical moments, delivered by a terrific ensemble of players. The last year or so, I've worked several times with Jeff Baker and Conrad Feininger, doing that series of staged readings at the Washington Stage Guild, and I've been a fan of Marni Penning for years. Here she plays an insistent woman whose life has been shaped by Freud and his work; Marni does a bang-up job with the farcical elements in the piece, then chills your bones with the climactic bombshell. (Off topic: Sarah Palin's new memoir, which should be a scream, is out soon and she's hitting the promo trail. Our Marni does a hootful impression of that chopper-riding sharpshooter; go here to take a peak). Speaking of the climax, director Steve and his designers have done a great job fulfilling some pretty outrageous special effects required by the author.

Like his castmates, Bruce Nelson, who plays Dali, straddles the comic and dramatic moments beautifully. He's getting a lot of well-deserved press for his performance, which is flamboyantly over-the-top and deeply grounded at the same time. I absolutely love work like that, and he is one of the actors around town I would very much like to work with. Especially now that I've seen him in bikini briefs.
And speaking of underwear, a pair of boxers covered in lipsticked kisses provides one of the only sight gags available to viewers of Adding Machine at Studio Theatre. This is not a piece concerned with comic moments (though a few sneak in anyway); instead, the bleak lives of a couple of zeros are played out via the most discordant musical score since that cat pounded the piano and ended up on YouTube. Well, that's the point, of course, and the atonal songs (what do you think of that term, "atonal"? Sounds vaguely related to "anal," doesn't it?) illustrate the disjointed lives the characters are living.Everybody is doing great work here, in my non-musical opinion, and coincidentally, my friends and acquaintances are all shining through the dismal tone of the piece. I was glad to see Tom Simpson getting an early laugh as one of the worker drones in the accounting office (he wants beer); when I played Sancho Panza last summer, Tom was my sidekick Don Quixote. Joanne Schmoll, with whom I worked several years ago in a staged concert of One Touch of Venus, has the difficult task of delivering a pretty strident aria at the top of the show, when we are just getting introduced to the style of the piece. Mrs. Zero seems a pretty thankless part, but Joanne gives it her all, and manages to squeeze in a moment of compassion late in the proceedings.

Dan Via, who stepped into the title role in Jerry Springer, the Opera a few years ago, does another fine job here, in another non-singing role. I really like this guy's work. Oh, and speaking of "opera," I don't really know why Adding Machine isn't called one. I doubt I detected half a dozen lines which were spoken rather than sung, but the show is being classified by its creators as a musical. And there is some catchy music in it, though you have to wait 'till Kristen Jepperson sings "I'd Rather Watch You" to find anything resembling a traditional melody. But that's all right, as Adding Machine is certainly not being touted as a traditional musical. We're not even being allowed to applaud after numbers, which adds to the audience's awkwardness. I bet that's what the author and director wanted all along (in this case, the author and the director are the same guy, Jason Loewith).

There is one honest-to-Gershwin showstopper in Adding Machine, which Stephen Gregory Smith delivers very, very well. I hope the lack of applause after "The Gospel According to Shrdlu" doesn't mask the fact that it's one helluva number. You wouldn't think a song which is delivered from inside a tiny jail cell would have much visual interest, but wait till you see it. I've snatched this picture from SGS's own blog, which I'm not sure is polite, but what the hell. Don't be fooled by his dull, grey uniform, he's giving the most colorful performance in the piece.

That sequence in the Afterlife (overseen by Via again, he loves to play the boss) doesn't give much respite to the overwhelming bleakness surrounding our hero, played with hulking despair by David Benoit, but then, he doesn't deserve much after what he's done. There's a swell technical effect at the show's conclusion, which uses Studio's upstairs brick-box space better than I've ever seen it used. That particular playing space is perfect for this production, though the acoustics are absolutely horrendous for song.

The original play upon which this musical is based, by Elmer Rice, was a 20s expressionistic piece called The Adding Machine. No word from our dramaturg on why the creators of the musical dropped the specifying article; the current show is simply Adding Machine: A Musical. Think about it long enough, and you start to wonder if they meant "adding" to be taken as a verb.