Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Waiting for rewrite

Bunbury (with Mikkel Raahede and Nathaniel Gundy, at left) came and went from the Factory Theatre with no attention from the mainstream press, which was too bad, because like most of the output of Mill 6 Collaborative, it was witty and generally well-acted, and certainly more sophisticated than much of what's up on our larger stages. It's true that Tom Jacobson's play proved a little too clever - or perhaps too self-referential - for its own good, and director Barlow Adamson and John Edward O'Brien didn't quite pull off the arc I think the script requires. Still, few recent local productions have been this literate, or offered quite so much blithe meta-theatrical sweep.

The hook of Jacobson's script is the status of such characters as the eponymous Bunbury (Algernon's excuse for extracurricular activities in The Importance of Being Earnest) and Rosaline, Romeo's romantic obsession before Juliet - neither of whom actually appears in their respective plays (as such, they're even a step down from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom Tom Stoppard fashioned into the springboard for one of his first mainstream successes). The first act begins with Bunbury, seemingly a flesh-and-blood gentleman, sniffing contemptuously at poor Rosaline, whom he deems "sub-fictional"; but before you can say "postmodernism!" she's at his front door in high dudgeon. The two then trot off to the final scene of Romeo and Juliet to stage an intervention - which ends not to Rosaline's liking (Romeo chooses Juliet, not her). Soon Bunbury faces romantic disappointment as well: he discovers Algernon, who's oft been, well, buried in his buns, is secretly romancing Cecily, and plans to marry her.

Reeling from their mutual rejection, this unlikely pair decides to rewrite literary history - only they discover said history is spontaneously rewriting itself. Like some impossible quantum event rippling through the space-time continuum, their intervention in R & J seems to have caused all the angst to drain out of Western literature: Madame Bovary lives happily ever after, Chekhov's three sisters hop the first train to Moscow, and Didi and Gogo finally catch up with Godot. But even as happy faces pop up all over the canon, Rosaline begins to worry that something deep and important seems to have gone missing from literary life, and Bunbury realizes he's still carrying the torch (well, actually a lily) for the perfidious Algernon.

All this is good fun, of course, only it does seem to violate its own rules of engagement early, and often: we never understand, for instance, exactly how Bunbury can leap like some metafictional Scott Bakula between various books and plays while remaining blissfully unaware that he's fictional, too. Nor does the moebius-strippy, reality-swallows-its-own-fictional-tail dénouement make much logical sense (sweet as it may be). This probably keeps Jacobson just outside the pantheon constructed around Tom Stoppard. But at the same time, you don't really care about logic when Jacobson's conceit delivers such funny skits as his rewrites of Three Sisters and Waiting for Godot. And there is an interesting subtext to be found in Bunbury's silenced gayness at last leaping out of the closet and sending ripples of fabulousness throughout western literature. A deeper problem, however, is that clever as his concept often is, the playwright's not quite as witty line-by-line as we want him to be - although perhaps that's how any author might look who dared to pen epigrams worthy of Oscar Wilde.

And even if they're not Wilde-worthy, the Mill 6 leads pitched most of the bon mots with consummate aim. Mikkel Raahede brought a relaxed, sophisticated polish to Bunbury, and Becca A. Lewis, though a bit strident at first as Rosaline, brought an energy to the proceedings that was more and more welcome as the evening wore on. Indeed, directors Adamson and O'Brien seemed to miss the basic arc of the piece: that Bunbury finds unforeseen direction with these newly-unleashed textual energies even as Rosaline begins to have her doubts. The supporting cast was more uneven, but there were still appealing turns from the reliable Shelly Brown and Sasha Castroverde (whose liberated Blanche Dubois was a highlight of the production). During moments like these, I found myself wishing that Mill 6 could find a way into spaces that weren't quite so far off the beaten path as the Factory Theatre. Isn't it time that a Fringe Alliance - consisting, perhaps, of Mill 6, Imaginary Beasts, Whistler in the Dark, and Rough and Tumble - attempted to coordinate a season at the BCA? I'm sure there's a larger audience out there that would be delighted to discover them.

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