Monday, January 26, 2015

Libra Theater Company Presents "Kind Souls" by Tom Diggs - Through February 1st

Robert Browning would have something to say about this one act drama.  As I reflected on the play, I was reminded of his quotation:

“Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?” 

In the case of "Kind Souls," it seems as if the reach of Tom Diggs has exceed the grasp of his writing, the staging by Director, Alexander Greenfield, and the depth of two actors who portray Tara and Oliver.  It seems apparent that Mr. Diggs has set out to present the banality of evil and an exploration of how two "kind souls" could be drawn into a web in which they are complicit in the deaths of innocent individuals.

The problem I have with the play is that the dilemma that Tara and Oliver face is set  in the midst of a generic "conflict," in a nameless place, answering to nameless "they" who coerce them into signing mysterious contracts.  The intent seems to be to ask how Germans could have been coerced into working in the death camps, but to universalize the question of how evil insidiously creeps into the hearts of otherwise good people.  Yet by failing to set the action in a particular place, the free-floating ethical exploration lacks punch and focus.

The dialogue and actions that Tara (Lindsey Kyler) and Oliver (John Clarence Stewart) are given by the playwright do not allow them to develop any chemistry.  I found myself strangely unmoved by their situation, and did not care much about what would become of them.  An Off-Off-Broadway setting is one in which I am accustomed to seeing artists take bold risks.  The fact that the action screamed for the actors to be physically naked as they bathed one another - rather than stopping short by keeping on their underwear - felt like they were holding back and not full committing to telling the story .  The fact that they mimed carrying pails of water that were supposed to be heavy yet clearly were not reinforced that sense of not being fully committed.  And miming smoking cigarettes rather than actually smoking them was another case in point.

This concept is one worth examining in depth.  Yet if this play is to have a life beyond this brief run at the Shetler Studios, it will need much reworking and tweaking.  Clearly the creative team involved in this project have strong credentials, so I trust that this work in progress will be improved in its execution in its next iteration.

Kind Souls tells the story of Tara and Oliver, a young couple struggling to make ends meet on the periphery of a great conflict. As the names of the dead continue to multiply in the town square, they do their best to survive with little food and few possessions. When an unexpected work opportunity finds its way into their lives, it appears things might just turn around for the two lovers. But all is not as it seems in this powerful, gut-wrenching look into how our relationships and ideals are tested as we bare the unbearable in times when violence and war are king.""

Set Design by Jason Sherwood
Costume Design by Travis Boatright
Lighting Design by Carl Wiemann
Sound Design by Alex Neumann
Original Music by Michael Finke
Production Management by Steven P. Nemphos
Production Stage Management by Cait Weisensee
Show Art by Alexa Shoemaker

Through February 1, 2015
Theatre 54 at Shetler Studios
244 West 54th Street, 12th Floor

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Underground Railway Theater Presents Bedlam's "St. Joan" by George Bernard Shaw - A Theatrical Delight

Four actors perform all 24 roles in Bedlam’s production of Saint Joan, declared “Irresistible! Ferocious!” and “A force of nature!” by the New York Times and a Top Ten Play of 2013 by Time magazine.

These quotations and notes of acclimation about the current production running at the Central Square Theater are only the tip of the iceberg.  Even though we are early in 2015, I believe that at year's end people will be talking about this production of Shaw's "St. Joan" as one of the highlights of the Boston/Cambridge theater season.  Underground Railway Theater have invited the New York-based Bedlam company to reprise their production that has played to delighted audiences in New York and beyond since 2013.  

The company, founded by Andrus Nichols and Eric Tucker, takes a fresh and bare-bones approach to this iconic play, integrating the audience into the action in creative ways.  One of those techniques is to require a portion of the audience to move to another seat during each of the two intermissions.The tacit message is clear.  Just as Shaw wanted us to see the sainted Joan of Arc in new ways, this company of actors invite us to see the play and its myriad themes from different perspectives - physically and psychologically.  Mr. Tucker directs this production with a deft touch.

The set is spare and movable - chairs, a wall upon which the characters write to indicate whether we are in Chinon, Orleans or elsewhere.  Lighting is simple.  Sometimes we find the actors sitting among the audience.and at other times in the more traditional spot on the stage, surrounded on three sides by bleacher-style seating. The founding partners are joined in this production by Edmund Lewis and Tom O'Keefe.  This quartet have clearly worked together for awhile, for their chemistry is palpable and their ability to shift seamlessly between characters makes the complex story easy to follow, even for those that may not have been previously familiar with the Shaw play.

The entire three act play is engaging, but the moments that stood out for me in watching this performance were Joan's appearance before the Inquisition, which had charged her with heresy, and an epilogue-type section in which the long dead Joan engages in conversation with those she knew in life about the ironic phenomenon of her having been granted that status of Saint by the Church that had once condemned her.  And the burning question of why we rarely recognize saints for who they are while they walk and live among us became even more poignant as I attended a performance on the eve of Martin Luther King's birthday.

Andrus Nichols as Joan
Bedlam's "St. Joan"
George Bernard Shaw
Central Square Theater
through February 1
Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography.
The play is a classic, yet the themes are as fresh as today's CNN broadcasts: the role of fundamentalism vs. entrenched conservative institutions, faith vs. reason, the ways in which an individual discerns God's will and His leading, the role of a strong woman in a man's world.  Andrus Nichols portrays young Joan,as a complex woman, projecting a smoky voice filled with strength, zeal,passion and determination, even up until her betrayal that led her to the stake. There is a heart-rending moment when it finally hits her that she is standing alone.  The Church has turned against her for daring to hear from God without using them as the sole approved intermediary.  Her military compatriots and the Dauphin, whom she had crowned, have turned against her. Have the voices of her saints also led her astray?  Doubt creeps in and she capitulates, until she realizes that forgiveness and grace are not being offered here.  She is a fiery presence long before the match was struck that sent her to her death and to a life so everlasting that we are still buzzing about her 500 years after she was the Maid of Orleans.

This is a production you will not want to miss.  Pay heed to that voice in your head that is telling you that you must lead an army of theater goers to Central Square to see this show.  You have until February 1st to complete your quest.



Central Square Theater Website