the cold fluorescent lights: (l-r) Burke, Ingram and Crane
in Rat in the Skull.
in the Skull
Ron Hutchinson, directed by Dennis Garnhum
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through Aug.
The interrogation scene, with its intense relationship between
accused and interrogator, has always furnished diversely compelling
possibilities. From trials to police procedurals to the arcane
inquisitors of Beckett and Pinter, the situation is inherently
dramatic. Highly memorable is Orwell’s much-adapted 1984,
with its electrifying scene in which protagonist Winston Smith
(most memorably played by Peter Cushing in a BBC version)
was subjected to the threat of a rat eating its way into his
Ron Hutchinson has written a riveting drama that reaches that
intensity without ever becoming blatantly graphic. It is the
power of words that Hutchinson wields with such acerbic dexterity
in this complexly drawn drama told, nearly Rashomon
style, by the play’s four protagonists. While set in the real
(as opposed to Orwellian) 1984, it speaks with topical urgency.
And although set in the interview cell of a London police
station, most of the words carry an Irish accent.
Thickest (and sometimes too thick in actor Phil Burke’s throat)
is that of Roche, a handsome young IRA terrorist who is the
victim of abuse allegedly inflicted by his brutish-looking
interviewer, Detective Inspector Nelson (Jonathan Epstein),
a fellow countryman of Roche’s, but one working for the English
opposition in Northern Ireland’s Royal Ulster Constabulary.
Both men are equally passionate about their work, and both
succeed in sympathetically getting under one’s skin. Also
on hand is Constable Naylor (nicely played by Michael Crane),
a junior member of the London Metropolitan Police, who might
have witnessed the brutality but who remains elusive and noncommittal.
Finally, there is Detective Superintendent Harris (Malcolm
Ingram), a tired yet decent senior officer whose unpleasant
task is to find out what happened. At various points all four
men speak directly to the audience in attempts to make us
see, if not identify with, their points of view.
Northern Irish-born Hutchinson is vigorously true to his stated
intention: to argue with himself and square his particular
Protestant heritage “with a deeper sense of all-Irishness,
settling his head against his heart, trying to find a position.”
The way to the end involves some of the season’s most propulsive
dialogue in scenes that grab one by the throat with bare-knuckled
intensity just after patting the shoulder with kid gloves.
Director Dennis Garnhum beautifully stages the interrogations
in the appropriately tight confines of Alexander Dodge’s admirably
brutalized setting of a metal platform surrounded by the detritus
of urban bombings. Matthew E. Adelson’s cold lighting impressively
couples with the set, with the best touch being two arrangements
of four fluorescent tubes shining from beneath the grillwork
of the platform on which the grilling, basting and eventual
self-basting takes place.
Despite some accents that are less authentic and full-blown
than others, the actors masterfully assert their roots and
relationships. As Harris, Ingram authentically inhabits his
character’s natty sports coat, as he suggests a world-weariness
and gentleness that is at odds with his position. It contributes
handsomely to a sense of personal tension that dovetails with
the play’s larger tensions.
While I think a more “wee” (Nelson’s description—twice) and
less muscular Roche would better suit the play, the charismatic
Burke is enormously likeable in the role, and during Roche’s
long silences we see the gears of his mind spinning.
The plum role is Nelson, and Epstein plucks it handily from
Hutchinson’s densely branching text, savoring all its juicy
tartness and latent sweetness. Seemingly part gargantuan villain,
part pit bull, part drinking buddy and part self-loathing
tragic hero, Nelson is a complex role with an array of plumage
belied by his tweed coat and earthy stance. Richly voiced
and armed with a masterful array of business, Epstein is compulsively
watchable as he hints at subtext beneath the subtext. By far
the best work I have ever seen from this previously most valued
commodity at Shakespeare & Company, Epstein rises to his
full potential as a mature actor. And here, surrounded by
sensible production values, uniformly fine support and astute
direction, he shines ever the more brilliantly.
Above the acting area stretches a narrow map that extends
from London to Liverpool and across the sea to Belfast and
Londonderry. It is periodically covered with large photos
and negatives of abuse victims and remains a potent banner
throughout the play, which at times becomes a crucible. But
don’t be misled; there is also a surprising warmth and bittersweet
humor that observes the most Irish of notions: that if you
didn’t laugh, you’d cry.
of Malice (and Everything Else)
J.T. Rogers, directed by Gus Reyes
Adirondack Theatre Festival, through July 30
opens in darkness, with the image of a barefoot young
woman, dressed in a simple white Empire-waisted robe, lit
only by the candle in her hand. And then she opens her mouth,
and for the next two hours you’re left wondering what happened
to the play that might have been.
The young woman, June (Sherri Parker Lee), her mother Lillian
(Mary Beth Peil) and her mother’s lover Nathan (Larry Pine)
are embroiled in one of those colorful Southern family dramas,
except that here the characters are upper-crust Manhattanites
without a touch of wit, humor or pathos—and half the family
is missing. Or perhaps, given the setting in a hotel in Rome
and the repeated references to Vestal Virgins, Madagascar
is trying to be a Greek tragedy, minus the hero—and the tragedy.
What we have is the story of a great microeconomist, known
for his majestic shock of black hair, whose wife gets tired
of always waiting around for him to get back from his latest
trip to Africa, and a post-adolescent son so horrified by
his mother’s infidelity that he drops right out of his family’s
life, leaving his twin sister to chuck her financial career
and go in search of him. Neither the father nor the son ever
appear on stage, however, and the other three characters occupy
different “places in time” in the same hotel room, interacting
only with each other’s shadows. The result is a mirage of
a play that has no point, no heart, and no soul.
Even the most annoying, meaningless play has some good aspects.
This one contains some interesting tidbits about ancient classical
art, although nothing that gave me “goosebumps,” as it did
the characters onstage. And there was an interesting story
about a snorkeling trip to Mexico, in which mother and daughter
each insert themselves into the role of companion to the handsome
young son. But why? Why should we care about this unseen boy,
let alone his personality-free mom and sis? Rogers and his
longtime collaborator Reyes give us only a trio of people
yapping away on stage. And that’s not drama.
Jokes in Iambic Pentameter
Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)
Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, directed by William
Saratoga Shakespeare Company, Congress Park, through July
If it sometimes seems like Shakespeare is nothing but a bunch
of cultural references, this harum-scarum color burst of a
play, packed full of improvisational nods to sources as diverse
as George Bush I and the Three Stooges, will make you feel
like the hippest intellectual on the block. Spencer S. Christie,
Christopher Rickett and Andy Place play every role from Juliet
to Hamlet, with occasional stand-ins ranging from a sock-puppet
ghost to Godzilla. And to keep things “relevant,” they turn
the bloody Titus Andronicus into a cooking show and
Othello into a rap, play Macbeth with thick
sloppy Scottish accents and turn Polonius into a little old
Jewish man. This show has been done before in the region,
and Saratoga Shakespeare’s production more than lived up to
reports of those earlier shows. Director William Finlay keeps
his young men moving and encourages them to go with the flow,
a formula that works perfectly with the company’s drop-in,
Lloyd Waiwaiole’s costumes, starting with candy-color Keds
and building from there with wigs, doublets and fake boobs,
were simple yet over-the-top. And the bare-bones set by Louis
Allen, pennants flapping in the breeze over billboards of
the Bard, was a cross between the Globe and Coney Island.
Add in butt and puke jokes galore, and you’ve got Shakespeare
for slapstick-loving 11-year-olds—a perfect antidote to too
much heavy thinking. The kids on the lawn all had a ball,
and you will too.