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The family drama: Gallagher and Gaston in The Water’s Edge.

The Tragic Flaw
By Ralph Hammann

The Water’s Edge
By Theresa Rebeck, directed by Will Frears
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, Williamstown , Mass.

It must have been a sense of orderly decay in Thomas Lynch’s potent set of an old clapboard house by the water that brought to mind a certain film by Hitchcock. And it must have been something be nign in Frances Aaronson’s lighting that offered sufficient contrast to this that caused me to quip that we were about to witness a musical version of Psycho. Little did I realize how prescient my tossed-off joke would be.

For a while, the level of acting in the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s production of The Water’s Edge works with Rebeck’s gift (however sporadic) for dialogue to draw us into a dysfunctional family drama with humorous undertones that often morph into overtones. But credibility issues and a wildly ineffective attempt to create a modern-day tragedy provide the real—unintended—laughs in (or at) the second act.

After a 17-year absence, Richard has returned to his childhood home, which has been housing his estranged wife, Helen, and their two grown children: Nate, a bookstore clerk, and Erica, a recent graduate of Brown. In tow, Richard has his girlfriend, Lucy, a sweet/sexy waitress who serves as an innocent witness to the increasingly loopy events that are intended to pass for a plot. Richard wants to reclaim his home, bond with his children and, perhaps, sit at night in the outdoor bathtub under a canopy of tree branches and stars. What he plans for Helen is unclear. What Helen—who never forgave Richard for the accidental drowning of their third child—plans for Richard is unbelievable.

The play unfolds as a series of slices of the lives of people for whom we have declining interest. There are no great themes that emerge as when authors like O’Neill redid the Greeks. The dialogue devolves into feminist cant and passages that are too literary to jibe with the bulk of the play.

Kate Burton struggles admirably to underlay some brittle hints of where Helen is headed, but the script does not support her. A tossed bowl of peas and a thrown handful of dinnerware just don’t do the trick. For an instant, Austin Lysy suggests that Nate may be unbalanced as opposed to slightly and humorously off-balance. As Richard, Michael Gaston escapes most of the worst writing in the play.

Fiona Gallagher saves from cliché what could have been a thankless role and makes us care more about Lucy than any of the ostensibly more central characters. Gretchen Cleevely may be a diminutive Erica, but she makes her a double-barreled derringer and grabs our attention.

By the time the second act ludicrously unfolds it is painfully clear that Rebeck is trying to write a contemporary version of Agamemnon, the first play of The Orestia trilogy. Her adaptation is awkward and hilariously self-conscious, as when she tries to represent the absent Greek gods in the overhanging branches of contented trees. Less Aeschylus than Stephen King in hack mode, Rebeck relies more on gothic horror than hamartia and fate.

One can’t even reasonably compare her to Hitchcock, who applied a greater sense of tragic technique to his thrillers than does Rebeck to her “tragedy,” which lacks a sense of terrible inevitability or suspense. With true suspense we know something catastrophic is going to happen and are forced to wait for it to unfold. Rebeck just gives us sudden revelations that inspire laughter. Perhaps director Will Frears should have approached this material as absurdist black comedy, for there is assuredly no catharsis—but possibly it is all Greek to him.

Impartial gods hovering overhead as trees? Bring on the woodpeckers.

Merry Maidens With Issues

Robin Hood
Written by Gray Simons and Foster Durgin, directed by Gray Simons
Berkshire Theatre Festival at the Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Mass., through July 17

Director Gray Simons has conceived a Robin Hood with no swashbuckling and no men in tights—in fact, there are hardly any men at all in the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s children’s production of the ancient English tale. Instead, whether due to the five-man, 12-woman makeup of BTF’s apprentice acting company, or simply a decision to retell the famous legend from a feminist perspective, this Robin Hood features a Maid Marion all dressed in forest green, a formidable Joan Little, the music of Ellen-of-Dale, and the “King Mother,” Eleanor of Aquitaine. The women of Sherwood have banded together to thwart the outrageous taxation of the Sheriff of Nottingham and his henchman, Sir Guy of Gisborne, by pretending to be the outlaw heroes whose exploits were well known even in the time of Richard the Lion-Hearted.

While the story holds together and the company, including Mary Beth DeLozier as Marian/Robin and Stephanie M. Thornton as Eleanor, is fine, I’m not sure political statement works well as children’s entertainment. Two things sure to hold a child’s interest are humor and action, and this production offers both in only moderate doses. There was probably only a normal amount of fidgeting in the audience at the performance we attended, but for long stretches of exposition my young companions (both male) started to check their watches or otherwise look distracted. I counted only two or three moments of real laughter in the course of the hourlong show.

Among those actors who were allowed to ham it up were Carrie Bonnell as Ellen/ Allen, who gave a goofy grin and seemed pretty much out of it as the others schemed, and the hearty Mimi Meserve as Joan/Little John, the fighter of the bunch. As Gisborne, Matt Stapleton’s prissy de meanor conveyed his cowardice even to the littlest playgoers. Hannah Wilson was a high-stepping page in what looked like very cute foot pajamas; and Thornton was Eleanor, well-meaning but a bit distracted herself. Ezra Colon made a traditional-looking Sheriff of Nottingham, perhaps a concession to the picture most people have in mind when going to see a production of Robin Hood. DeLozier’s Robin was good but not inspiring; Errol Flynn has nothing to worry about here.

Speaking of Flynn, fighting—which makes up such an important part of the genre of legendary hero tales—is also scarce here in this very intellectual version of the story. Still, there’s a well-choreographed brawl at the end that my 8-year-old found satisfying. I liked the robust costumes, by Renae Pedersen, who used color and cut to suggest the women’s alter egos, and the English ballads used gave the production a medieval air. The set consisted of three rotating three-sided backdrops, but their washed-out palette didn’t come up to the level of the rest of the production. All in all, a distaff Robin Hood is an interesting conceit, but as children’s theater it’s an idea that needs more thinking through.

—Kathryn Ceceri

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