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Picnic – Review

picnic

There are theatrical experiences so real, so raw that it is only when the house lights go up that you remember where you are. Time passes imperceptibly and there is no one to your right or left, just those people up on the stage. Such is the mesmerizing effect of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Picnic (by William Inge.) Directed by Sam Gold and with an ensemble cast only dreamed of in parlor games, Picnic is a feast.

The set (Andrew Lieberman) is brilliant, designed with the (harmless) voyeur in mind. The Owens house is front and center with many rooms visible. Scenes play in and out of the house and across yards and we watch from across the way. We watch Flo Owens (Mare Winningham) long for what’s best for her daughters Madge (Maggie Grace) and Millie (Madeline Martin.) We watch the Owens boarder Rosemary (Elizabeth Marvel) grasp at a chance for happiness. And Mrs.Potts (Ellen Burstyn) watches them because it makes her feel alive and gives her respite from a demanding invalid mother. There are men who propel the motion of their lives as well. Howard (Reed Birney) has been a steady presence in Rosemary’s life and Alan (Ben Rappaport) may just be Madge’s future. It is Hal (Sebastian Stan) who comes to upend their lives.

Picnic really is the story of women and how they live within the social confines of the 1950s and manage their desires. Flo, a single parent for many years, knows her daughters can have more than she ever did. She sees the artistic and intellectual gifts of her youngest Millie. Her elder Madge is stunning and Flo recognizes her beauty for the commodity it is. She is blunt with Madge about the shelf life of such an asset. Madge doesn’t see the point in being pretty, although she certainly does manage to have a great deal of fun with her looks. She’s savvy enough to realize that her sister has far more than she ever will. Flo sees Al as Madge’s ticket to the good life and encourages her daughter to fake passion to gain his commitment. Rosemary, the ‘spinster school teacher’ of a certain age is coming up right to the edge. She is a ball of fire and energy and is filled with more life than the women half her age. She senses (as Flo does about Madge) that it’s now or never.

It is this urgency of both Flo and Rosemary that provide the most powerful moments of the play. The power and anguish unleashed is unsettling. There is an impulse to turn away. But watching Ms. Winningham and Ms. Burstyn together is not to be missed. And to watch Ms. Marvel in what can only be called a Tony worthy performance is amazing. Ms. Marvel is unrecognizable physically. Normally a lovely and graceful, erect woman, she is curved and springy as Rosemary. In her wig and costume she is reminiscent of an energetic Eileen Heckart. It is her performance and her scenes with Howard that will linger. Their relationship and Rosemary’s longing are played out in a stirring dance sequence (Chase Brock choreographer.)

If there is any weakness in this magnificent production it is that of the ingenue casting. Watching Madge struggle with the superficiality of her ‘gift’ would be more compelling with a more layered actress. Casting Ms. Grace was an interesting stroke of realism, but might have missed to mark just a bit. Mr. Stan conveys a splendid mix of ingratiating grifter and wounded soul, but physically he may not be ideal. There isn’t enough difference in presence between Hal and Al to fully grasp Madge’s attraction. But as this play belongs to the grown women, it’s a minor point.

For all of its very raw and heartbreaking moments, Picnic is an uplifting play. Witnessing people finding their way and grasping joy is always inspiring. And there may never be a stronger ensemble and director than that of this production.

 
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Posted by on December 27, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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The Total Bent – Review

The Public is a distinct theatre, at times self-consciously so.  Often it is challenging to recall its noble origins amidst the marquee Central Park players, and lobby filled with smug hipsters.  But a physical set back (in this case a massive messy renovation) will do wonders to a persona.  Plastic tenting drapes the facade (and sidewalk) of the building.  Visitors are shuttled through a labyrinth of particleboard and exposed electricals to a makeshift box office.  The Public staff seems to have multiplied threefold and have been trained to move everyone safely and informatively to their respect seats.  Even with all of the helpful friendliness, I braced myself upon entering the theatre space.  Yes, the seats are plush and comfy, but the stage is always awkward and it becomes exhausting to ignore the obstructing columns time and time again.  Yet there it was, designed to be a southern (somewhat shabby) recording studio and it was impossible to imagine a more perfect stage. The set seemed to seep into the audience and into the very fabric of the infrastructure.  Those annoying columns (wrappers in carpet remnants and secured with duct tape) seemed to have been created just for Andrew Lieberman’s design.  The pieces of furniture are random in style and utterly realistic.  Wires, recording devices, and used instruments dot the stage.

All of this would fit into the category of commendable “art installation” if it wasn’t just a hint of what splendor awaits in The Total Bent (Stew-book, lyrics and music with Heidi Rodewald.)  This is the second major theatrical endeavor since Passing Strange (2008) and has elements that may now be seen as Stew trademarks.  As in Passing Strange: the musicians are an integral part of the story and on stage.  The core of the story is the parent/child tensions that result from a successful “coming of age.”  Joe Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall) is a dynamic larger than life father/recording producer.  His son Marty (William Jackson Harper) has been recording since he made the ladies swoon in church at the age of ten.  Their generational divide centers around the “type” of music they each want to record.  His father wants to continue to package spiritual songs for the living rooms of white people.  The son has something a little more contemporary and authentic in mind.  Beyond that issue, was a song that resulted in disaster (through a misinterpreted lyric) and a great recording that never was.  The boy breaks free of his father’s overbearing grip (or does he?) and struggles to find his voice.

The music, not surprisingly, is excellent: a little bit gospel, a little bit rock and roll.  There is a lot of foot tapping and swaying happening in the audience.  It isn’t entirely clear what the time period is.  There are times the costumes suggest the 1970s, yet the vernacular speaks to the present, presumably this is intentional.

Directed by Joanna Settle, the tight ensemble never falters.  The British record producer (David Cale) is a wonderful addition with his energy, awkwardness, and pale angular Britishness.  The church bus driver and janitor (aka the back-up band) played by Eddie R. Brown II and Julian Rozzell, Jr. are incredibly watchable.    The use of space, light (Adam Silverman) and sound (Obadiah Eaves) are spot-on and add a roundness and completeness to the play.  While there is never a dull or “down” moment, and one never tries to spy one’s watch in the dark, the show does need a trim.  Two and a half hours is not extreme, but some of the emotional impact of The Total Bent is diluted with (what are in essence) repeated scenes.  It is a compelling, well crafted and staged play that could be perfect with just a snip or two.  No doubt in such an organic feeling piece, the cuts may hurt a bit.

There is a perfect storm at work right now.  The Public, and all the metaphorical significance of its massive face-lift, and The Total Bent create a magic together.  I’m not sure I’ve experienced theatre at which the lobby informs the experience of the play.  This play would most certainly work in a multitude of venues, but if you can, see it now; at The Public.

 

 

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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