Friday, March 6, 2009

Short cuts

A few quick notes on smaller productions seen recently:

Last weekend the Charlestown Working Theater closed a kind of story-theatre version of The Odyssey, developed and performed by husband-and-wife team Jennifer Johnson and John Peitso (Johnson runs the theater). The piece, which also included poetry from Louise Gluck, T.S. Eliot, and Claribel Alegria, proved striking in many of its haunting effects. Johnson and Peitso had set themselves adrift in an actual rowboat in the middle of the theatre - with a silvery moon slung low in the "sky" behind them - and had devised potent, low-tech story-theatre gambits to evoke the many wonders of their tale: the Cyclops was sketched in brilliantly with just a flashlight, for instance, while shadow-puppetry subtly conjured the magic of Circe. And Peitso's musical interludes, on the dulcimer, harmonica, and other instruments, leant the proceedings just the right lonely-night-under-the-stars atmosphere. But oddly, while the piece seemed to want to focus on the longing felt between Odysseus and Penelope, the acting couple didn't actually share much stage chemistry, and had decided to delete several key scenes from their source (including most of its climax) while lingering on the interlarded work of the other poets, which didn't always re-inforce the clarity of their throughline. The piece therefore seemed somehow less than the sum of its poetic parts.

Meanwhile, over at the BCA, Centastage's world premiere of The Random Caruso, a satire of the Hollywood scene by local writer Andrew Clarke, will wrap up this coming weekend. I caught the piece at its actors' benefit on Monday, and was struck by its polish and confidence. Clarke knows how to structure his scenes, the details of his writing have the authority of lived experience, and his dialogue has real bite. Alas, the author simply doesn't have anything particularly new to say about the L.A. shark tank. We can tell he wants to avoid the familiar triangular-betrayal template of cultural touchstones like Mamet's Speed-the Plow, but he hasn't found another way to develop his material; instead, he essentially repeats himself in his second act. (Perhaps because in the end, dark comedies with only three lead roles perforce must lead to triangles and betrayals.)

Still, even the second time through, Clarke's scenes remained fun, thanks to three strong central performances, and Joe Antoun's sleek direction. I was least taken with Michael F. Walker as the tormented personal assistant and would-be screenwriter, even though I usually find Walker the best thing over at Actors' Shakespeare Project - this seemed all the stranger because I didn't think Walker got in touch with the character's guilty inner sliminess (usually this actor's specialty!). As his monstrous boss, Robert Pemberton may have gone up occasionally on lines, but sketched in the requisite nastily insecure, infantile egotism with offhand skill. The real find of the show, however, was Tracy Oliverio, who made quite the sexy-tough aspiring waitress. We hope to see Ms. Oliverio again soon, and often.

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