Saturday, June 9, 2012

Castle Perilous

Allyn Burrows and Melis Aker in I Capture the Castle.
Theatre people are always singing the praises of taking a risk.  Risk, risk, risk.  It's all about risk!

But there's nothing more painful than watching a large number of talented people take a big risk that doesn't pan out.  And I'm afraid that is basically what has happened up at Stoneham with I Capture the Castle (through Sunday only)  The cast is talented, the set impressive (and expensive!), the costumes and lighting evocative.  Even the music is memorable. But the play - adapted by Dodie Smith (of 101 Dalmations fame) from her own 1948 novel - is simply too flawed for anybody to put over, and there's something almost painfully Sisyphean about this talented crew's attempt to get the show moving.

In the end, artistic director Weylin Symes really should have been able to predict this, but I can also see how he might been blinded by the poetry of Smith's prose. This kind of bewitching romance held the British in its sway for much of the first half of the twentieth century: a hybrid of the pastoral and the gothic, it was basically a feminine coming-of-age story, yet also traded in benign fantasy and "fancy" - its characters encountered full moons, ruins, and crashing waves with astonishing regularity (often on midsummer eve or Hallowe'en), and were often quite sure they must have seen spirits or sprites, to boot.  The genre probably reached its fullest flowering in a charming handful of Michael Powell movies, but the novel I Capture the Castle is a pretty good avatar of the form, this time genially cut with a Shavian bemusement regarding bohemianism and social class.

Melis Aker as Cassandra
But you can't really power a play on atmosphere alone, and that's all Smith's got; she wrote several other fairly successful scripts, but I can't imagine how, her dramaturgical powers seem so puny.  Indeed, Smith is unable to structure even a single solid scene (nobody at Stoneham gets one); she telegraphs shifts in mood, and notional conflicts, directly (some confrontations are simply narrated by the heroine, who of course wants to be an author, at left), and shuffles her large cast back and forth at will, pushing characters through unlikely emotional hoops with little rhyme or reason.

So it's hard to care in the end who will capture this castle  (the play is about two poor British girls living with their lovably artsy family in a rustic ruin, which two rich, eligible American boys inherit - I think you can do the rest, and probably better than Dodie Smith could).  But everyone at Stoneham works so hard at being lovable - and Smith is, occasionally, quite witty - that the show is sometimes charming (if faintly so).  Local star Marianna Bassham, deploying a smoky alto that would have done Tallulah Bankhead proud, has the most fun with the trenchantly ditzy opinions of Topaz, the artist's model who now plays stepmother to the Disney-esque brood of James Mortmain (an intriguing Allyn Burrows), a once-great author now lost in the doldrums of writer's block.  Yes, "Topaz Mortmain" - this kind of play always features that kind of name, along with tongue-twisters from Greek mythology, so people often stumble over lines like "I never loved Melpomene, Ariadne, but I'm mad for Euterpe!"

Oh, well; I was glad to watch many of the actors Stoneham has assembled for this extravaganza, even if I winced at their lines.  It's been far too long since I saw the lovely Philana Mia, for instance - who really should be playing some Shakespearean heroine somewhere - but she was more than matched by newcomer Melis Aker (a senior at Tufts), who brought a rosy, vulnerable intelligence to Our Narrator, "Cassandra" (but who didn't quite limn the painful arc of her romantic experience, I'm afraid).  Alas, the girls' suitors were less compelling - Dan Whelton and Michael Underhill have given striking performances elsewhere, so I didn't understand quite why they failed to channel the vibrant American glamour Smith clearly intended.  But almost everyone else was in clover with the author's gallery of eccentrics, so I'll just list them all - Bernie Baldassaro, Charlotte Anne Dore, John Geoffrion, Joey Heyworth, Sarah Jones, Gerard Slattery, Meredith Stypinski, Sheriden Thomas, I wish you'd had a better play to be in.  Still, you couldn't wish for a better set to be in: Richard Chambers constructed an actual turret on the stage of Stoneham.  Maybe they can store it somewhere and bring it back if somebody else ever captures this Castle in a more stage-worthy play.

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