Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Lie of the Mind - Theater Review

I applaud the newly formed theater group Collektor for taking steps that are challenging for any artist. First, the boldness, audacity and focus to start a new theater company.  Their proclaimed aim as a “New Seattle Art Collective” is provocative enough and undefined enough to suggest both potential greatness as well as potential lack of focus. As with any newly formed artistic endeavor, however, it’s more worthwhile to focus on the product than any boasting claims (Collektor is admirably modest in this regard). So that leads me to my next nod of recognition to this group, for having chosen a play that in itself makes a statement about what they are about.
Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind is a big, rough edged, overpowering,  grizzly-bear attack of a play. It’s linguistically and symbolically charged. It’s unrefined in the best sense of the word. It dares you to dive in and find meaning in its murky waters and then mercilessly holds you under, refusing to let you see the surface again.
The play is an ensemble piece in which each role is as important and demanding as the next. Artistically this is a play that actors, designers, and directors can stick their teeth deeply into and be sure to have enough meat there to provide them and their audience a rich experience.
Why does a new group choose a play like this? I would assume that the large cast (9 very significant parts)  the depth of language, big emotion and the surreal nature of the play seemed like a strong showcase piece for what this new group wanted Seattle to know about them. It’s a bold choice, but it’s not worth embarking on a venture like this if you are not willing to take big risks.
The play tells the story of Jake and Beth. But not quite just Jake and Beth - Jake and Beth and their families. As in most Shepard plays, family is a character unto itself, and in A Lie of the Mind , there is more family than most people can take. The opening of the play Jake is calling his brother Frankie in violent hysterics because he has, yet again, beaten his wife Beth and, this time, probably killed her. In these opening scenes Ray Tagavilla (Jake) is at his best as his explosively punctuated rage, palpable potential danger and physically draining inner turmoil is on full display as he tries to gain sympathy, help and guidance from his brother Frankie, played in perfect pitch nervous angst by Tim Gouran.
Beth, meanwhile, is not dead but is recovering from her brutal beating with severe brain damage. Beth is aided by her brother Mike and eventually her mother and father Meg and Baylor. While none of these roles are easy, Beth’s part is particularly challenging for both the actor and the director. Shepard doesn’t not give a lot of description as to how Beth speaks. He simply has her speech, the words, speak for themselves. It is abrupt, staccato-ed and takes philosophical and linguistic bridges that we usually don’t allow our non-brain-damaged minds to journey upon. He does not, however, discuss the physicality of her speech. This production has chosen to have Beth’s physical act of pronouncing word be part of her impairment. I cannot say whether this is inherently a right or wrong choice, only that it didn’t fully work in this production. That said, Aimee Bruneau (Beth) gives herself fully to this role and plays the speech impairment of her character to almost unsettling effect. I am sure, however, that the production  would have been better served if she just struggled with the mental thought process of constructing her thoughts into sentences, rather than adding the physical handicap of restrained speech on top of that.
There are a couple suggestions from the text that would seem to support this idea. First, Beth’s other physical ailments, having trouble walking, etc., get better as the play progresses. It is unclear and distracting then why her physical speech would not as well. Secondly, there is a scene later in the play where Beth is talking privately to Frankie, where she says two complete sentences in row, rather than the 3- 5 word fragmented sentences she speaks in most of the time. The only indication as to how she should say these new lines is Shepard’s stage direction (Quick) and the only indication as to how they are to be taken is Frankie’s next line “I thought you couldn’t talk right or something. You sound okay to me.” Yet in in this production Beth completely drops the strained vocal production of someone who has had a bad stroke and speaks her lines, temporarily, in perfect understandable crisp speech. Then quickly goes back, unexplainably, to the previous afflicted condition. Beth did this once earlier in the play on a line I can’t remember (at the time I thought it was an actor’s mistake, stepping out of the accent so to speak). I assume that the Rob West (the director) and the Ms. Bruneau thought there was some added layering of the mystery of the play through this. To my ears, however, it just didn’t work. Ms. Bruneau clearly possesses the talent to have played this part in a different direction. I wished she would have let Shepard’s poetically charged language guide her part more than the layered on physical handicap she chose.
As Jake and Beth both retreat to their parental homes to recover, Beth physically and emotionally while Jake is trying to deal with the fact that he still believes that he killed her, the two families of this mismatched couple slowly begin to invade the play, eventually to a degree, not uncommon in a Sam Shepard play, that the identities of the characters begin to wash over one another and blur the lines between them.
Before that fully happens we meet Beth’s parents, Meg and Baylor, who are played in the stand out performances of the evening by Sally Brady and Joe Ivy (respectively). Both are clearly concerned and worried for their daughter but both in very different ways. Meg wants to nurture, baby and soothe (she doesn’t, not does Jake’s mother, Lorraine, even remember that her child was married, let alone to someone who beats her) while Baylor is ready to get her swiftly back on her feet, to let her do something for herself, yet shows dramatically little concern for any kind of justice or revenge regarding Jake who put his daughter in this awful state. This is where Beth’s brother Mike comes in. He seems like a natural good brother at first, helping her recover, looking out for her peace of mind, but slowly, as no one else seems to be bothering with it, he begins to take the role of the protector/father and is the most interested in making Jake pay in some way for his crime.
All three of these are subtly complex roles that carry a multitude of nuances from scene to scene. While I pretty much fell in love with Meg’s character the first time she stepped on stage in act I(Sally Brady inhabited the world of this play to its fullest), there is a scene late in the play between the husband Baylor and the wife Meg that physically deals with the taking off of Baylor’s boots, but emotionally and philosophically delves into the nature of human companionship and the very nature of our place on earth, that is acted with such majesty, grace, restraint, and honesty that it has made Ms. Brady and Mr. Ivy two of my new favorite Seattle actors.
Eric Riedmann as Mike, played, as the rest of the cast did, with full conviction, emotionally honesty and utter purpose that it is hard to state any fault. Yet as the play and most of its characters begin to verge away from what most of us would recognize as reality, it is too easy to play Mike as the last sane one of the bunch who goes into histrionics because no one understands him, which is what it feels like happened here. Mike is no different from the rest. They are all longing for understanding. But they are also, all, following, in some loose way, the pre-determined paths that their destinies/genes/families/role models have carved out for them. In simple acting terms, Mike peaks too early, but underneath that generality there is a wealth of life left unexplored.
Macall Gordon as Jake’s mother Lorraine and Maggie Tatone as Jake’s sister Sally share the ensemble dedication of bringing this monster of a play to life. Yet neither one seems particularly well cast in their parts and makes for their scenes together, as well as their solo scenes with Jake, drag a bit. Mr. Tagavilla as Jake, despite such a strong start in the more emotional and realistic parts of the play, has a difficult time keeping his character’s inner life alive for the audience when Jake turns into more of a surreal vessel for his dead father, his absent brother and his possibly dead wife.
The physical production values of the play were quite a mixed bag. There was gorgeous and affecting live music throughout from Sean Patrick Taylor. The brutal effects of violence were shown in astonishingly realistic gashes, bruises and scars by Jodie Knowles’ make-up (especially impressive in such a small space so close to the audience).  Yet other aspects did not quite make for an artistic whole.
The set in some ways follows very closely the description set forth in the script – two platforms, one for each home, with a gap of space between them, big enough for scenes outside the homes to be acted. Yet in the Bullitt Cabaret Space at ACT these 2 platforms were so small they barely fit the furniture that was placed on them, let alone gave enough space for actors to move around.
Then there was the issue with the soup. There is a scene where Jake’s mother, Lorraine, is trying to feed a nonresponsive Jake cream of broccoli soup while Jake is lying in his childhood bed. After a bit, Jake knocks the spoon out of her hand, snatches the bowls, turns it upside down and then stomps in his bed until he is exhausted. In this production, however, there is no soup. They mime it.
If nothing else, Sam Shepard plays are big and messy. There are dead animals (many), blood (tons), broken bottles, broken bones, gun shots, fist fights, and plenty of food thrown about (soup included). On some level, this production didn’t reach its full potential due to some physical restrictions. In numerous scenes the actors looked like they had to slow down and step out of character (just for a second, these are all solid actors) simply to maneuver in the cramped space. If there was a reason you couldn’t spill real soup or something that looked like soup and let Jake stamp around in it for while (there are reasons, the audience, like I said was very close to the action – I saw a production of Shepard’s True West years ago in a very small space where a metal key from a typewriter came flying past my head after an actor had taken to the typewriter with a golf club – it was in the script - but I still didn’t appreciate it) then you need to cut that part of the play, or replace it with something else. Why go to the trouble of having some of the most realistic make-up work I have ever seen done and then mime soup. It was inconsistent and threw us out of the play, as did the unrealistic partial deer carcass and anything that directed our attention to the paper backdrop that extended to the floor and you could hear the crinkle of actors stepping on as they exited the stage.
Yes, it might seem easy and arrogant to Monday morning quarterback this, but I believe it is important to point out that all these elements are part of what make a great production. Overall the artistic vision here was not entirely cohesive. A set that does not fit the space and mimed soup in an otherwise relatively physically realistic set are just symptoms of a larger artistic miss.
Despite any of this, Collektor’s statement with this first production is clear – they are a fully engaged, fearless, dedicated group that aims on doing great work. While this first outing might have missed the mark on some points, I hope they will be back with something else to challenge us with very soon.

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