Friday, September 9, 2016

Confusion in the Dark

To open its new season Everyman Theatre has chosen to revive Frederick Knott's hardy perennial, Wait Until Dark.  The thriller pits a gang of smugglers (Roat, Carlino, Mike) against a blind housewife (Susan), trapped in her basement Greenwich Village apartment.  Roat and his associates are attempting to retrieve a doll that has accidentally fallen into the possession of Susan, her husband (Sam), and a pesky upstairs teenage neighbor (Gloria).  The opening effort of the gang members to deceive Susan through a series of elaborate ruses---including the suggestion that her husband was having an affair with the gang member (Lisa) who inadvertently gave him the doll---turns into physical violence in the second act.  In the celebrated climactic scene out of Grand Guignol, Susan turns the entire stage pitch black as she breaks the fuses on all the apartment's lights to create an even playing field with Roat, now determined to rape and kill her.

Unfortunately, the director Donald Hicken has chosen to use Jeffrey Hatcher's 2013 "adaptation" of Knott's play rather than the original 1966 Knott script.  Originally set in 1960s New York, the action is now transplanted to 1944.  Why?  In a program note, the dramaturg Johanna Gruenhut argues that this new setting gives the play a film noir feel.  Everyone is now bathed in a dark undercurrent of criminality and vice.  "As they negotiate the tribulations, blame is hard to ascribe, no one---not even a young neighbor---is truly innocent, and it is unclear who is more capable of protecting whom, and who really needs protection."  Really?  The blind Susan, the heroine of the piece, is perfectly innocent: Roat is the violent aggressor and she has done nothing to provoke him.  Her husband Sam, falsely accused of adultery in order to get Susan to relinquish the doll, is innocent as well.  Gloria is a disturbed, obnoxious girl in teenage rebellion mode but she courageously helps Susan to fend off the trio of aggressors.   No criminal she.  Knott's moral universe starkly pits the good against the evil; it's three against three and there's no ambiguity as to who is the assailant and who is the victim.

Another bit of Hatcher's tampering has to do with the smuggled contents in the doll.  In the original script it was heroin; now, it is diamonds.  But the violent Roat and his dime-store henchmen are clearly low-life petty criminals, more typical of the drug trade than an elegant heist from Tiffany's.  The script is full of the anxiety typical of 1960s New York: a burgeoning drug trade, rising crime rates, middle-class flight to the suburbs, growing insecurity in those who remain in the city.  Even Gloria's violent tantrums have a 1960s youth rebellion air to them.  The newly concocted references to World War II do nothing to advance the action.

The sound design also bears traces of directorial malfeasance.  The play is punctuated by the loud sound of a clock ticking and eerie music that sounds like the old Twilight Zone.  It weakens rather than enhances the tension of the play.  Susan's anxiety in her silent, isolated little universe is undercut.

The cast delivers a solid performance.  A standout was Shannon Hutchinson as Gloria, the awkward, disturbed, but ultimately heroic teenager.  Megan Anderson is completely credible as Susan, alternating confusion, terror, and courage as she slowly deciphers the conspiracy tightening around her.   As Roat, Bruce Randolph Nelson captures the sadist's dark humor but is not as menacing as Roat might be.


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Election 2016 at Kennedy Center

One of the central theatrical events of the DC region is the annual Page-to-Stage Festival held on the Labor Day Weekend at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.  The Festival's committee invites theater groups from the District, Maryland, and Virginia to give a preview of the new dramatic season through readings, rehearsals, and panels tied to their current works-in-progress.  Numerous Baltimore groups presented programs at this year's Festival.  One of the more intriguing entries came from the Playwrights Group of Baltimore, who presented an anthology of short plays, USA 2017, which focused on everyone's favorite topic of conversation these days: the presidential election in November.

A mixture of comic and tragic pieces explored the election's outcome from different perspectives.  As one might expect, Donald Trump was the arch-villain of the evening.

Rich Espey's sober dialogue What a Year probed the ways in which "white privilege" is more than a slogan and how even mildly racially tinged language can hurt and distort reality.  More bombastic, Paddy Carroll's satirical My Fabulous Trumpettes imagines how the famous Trumpian wall backfires as the Donald takes over the White House with the comic assist of Chris Christie, Sarah Palin, and Vladimir Putin.  The wall returns in Amy Bernstein's elegiac The Wall, in which a Mexican-American mother and daughter find themselves separated from and invisible to each other because of the new wall on the Mexican border.  Political corruption is the object of criticism in Joe Osborne's No Contest, set in a decrepit Philadelphia precinct.  The most poetic piece of the evening, Cheryl Williams's Ford's Place gently depicts three older women dealing with the grief-tinged comic soap opera of their small neighborhood.

Allegory takes over in Susan Middaugh's Heavy Weights, where Hillary and Donald become boxers in the ring.  Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty make guest appearances to deliver patriotic speeches on the real meaning of America.  In Kevin Kostic's The Political Roundup dueling Democratic and Republican television commentators, using the foulest rhetoric to destroy the positions of the other side, suddenly discover they are long-lost siblings and the children of the unsuspecting host.  A political farce, John Conley's Adele and Lancelot Bake a Cake features two White House chefs, adamantly opposed to Hillary and Donald, who bake an unusual dessert for the unexpected new President and Vice President.  An elegiac note returns with Dwight Cook's C in C's Last Walk, depicting Obama's bittersweet day of departure from the White House.

Shirley Basfield Dunlap, Menchu Esteban, Alex Hewett, Richard Keller, Alina Collins Maldonado, and Erica Poe joined the playwrights as the cast for USA 2017.  The result was a clear, passionate, creative---but far from nuanced---take on our bizarre electoral season.