“The road to Hell is paved with good intentions”, or so they say….
I applaud the energy, commitment and audacity with which young theatre companies in our local scene, on limited budgets and with limited directorial wisdom and experience, launch themselves into productions of plays that require a high degree of theatrical artistry. Sometimes the combination of raw, innocent youth and dynamic script fuses with genuine synthesis. Broken Gears Theatre Project’s recent production of John Patrick Shanley’s 1983 triumph Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, on a shoestring budget in a film production warehouse space in Irving, created some of the most gripping stage moments I’ve seen this year. Yet, sometimes, good intentions are for naught.
The latter case encompasses two productions currently playing in the region: SATER at The Dallas Hub Theater’s the dreamer examines his pillow (also by John Patrick Shanley), directed by David Jeremiah, and Sundown Collaborative’s No Exit (by Jean- Paul Sartre), directed by Tashina Richardson, at TWU in Denton. Both productions have appealing elements and some respectable acting, but I would be making it up if I said either did justice to the artistry or sentiment in the respective texts.
The best part of this particular Shanley play (written in 1985) is its imaginatively evocative title. In the dreamer examines his pillow, three people strain hard to externalize their deepest internalized thoughts and feelings about love and commitment. A more static piece than the earlier Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, its characters get all wrapped up in heady angst and tend to become symbolic mouthpieces for fountains of verbose psychobabble. The play feels constipated. Without masterful direction or riveting performances, it becomes tiresome. In the SATER production, Christopher Dontrell Piper as the ever-reflective Tommy demonstrated promise, particularly when addressing his downstage apartment-sized refrigerator. Without ever chewing scenery, he communicated his character’s inner turmoil and conflicted motivations subtly and effectively. Too bad the other two actors were not directed to mirror and compliment Piper’s sincerity and simplicity. The production was lit poorly, as well. Often the three actors delivered portions of their voluminous tirades in half-light, a step beyond where light instruments seemed to be pointed.
Denton’s Sundown Collaborative shares similar out of balance elements with their No Exit production. The initial set up held promise. Hell’s valet (Christopher David Taylor), ushered audience members into the space one at a time, to designated seats, just as the play’s characters are escorted into the first scene. The rehearsal hall/performance space was lit very brightly to mimic the heat of the Hell setting to a nearly sauna-like level, an interesting, if trying, environmental effect. Also a play with three primary characters immersed in heady self-examination, No Exit deals with the existential question of self-deception. The three characters moved in and out of each other’s triangulated private space on three sets of blocks cumbersomely dressed to resemble couches, as they are referred to in the script. The play’s arc calls for careful delineation and offers clearly defined beats, peaking at moments of self-revelation. Mostly director Tashina Richardson’s cast ignored the play’s internal structure and rhythms and seemed to meander aimlessly. The most interesting performance arose out of Travis Stuebing as Garcin. He conveyed a sense of grand foreboding from his entrance and devolved gradually into hopeless resignation as the play progressed. No Exit is hardly a realistic play, but Stuebing portrayed Garcin with realistic detail and nuance that inched the trenchant work beyond a purely rhetorical realm. Costumes on the two women cast members neither reinforced their roles nor seemed to belong in the same play.
The best of intentions, duly noted.
No Exit, as produced by Sundown Collaborative at TWU’s Redbud Studio Theater, runs through May 15 (www.sundowntheatre.org). 214-729-0313
Ben Brantley, in an August 31, 2009, NY Times review of a production of the dreamer examines his pillow, comments, “…there are rewards in watching talented interpreters turn muddy poetry into flowing prose. The tone is dizzyingly cerebral, and I shudder to imagine how “Dreamer” might be with a less grounded cast.”