Thursday, December 20, 2012

Moonbox shines on

Phil Tayler and Harry McEnerny before their best laid schemes go awry.  Photo: Craig Bailey
Moonbox Productions first rose over the fringe two years ago, I believe; I didn't catch their first productions, but was struck by the quality of their remarkable Floyd Collins last spring.  Now they're back, with Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, in a moving version (through this weekend at the BCA) that can't quite disguise some of the playwright's clumsy dramaturgy, but still mines (thanks to accomplished lead performances) the deep veins of feeling that have made this text a cultural touchstone.

Surely you know the sad story, of quick-witted George and slow-witted Lennie, drifters bound at the hip in Depression-era California, who wander a lonely landscape as hired hands. Their hardscrabble lives are made all the harder by the frequent scrapes Lennie gets into; a gentle giant who doesn't know his own strength, his only dream is to stroke soft things (rabbits, those eponymous mice) - it's when his attention is drawn by a woman's dress or hair that he finds himself in trouble.

If your heart beats a little faster at this homophilic (as opposed to homo-erotic) daydream, then you're already on Steinbeck's wavelength.  To my mind, however, the author's adoration of all things brotherly almost borders on the neurotic: his only female character lacks even a name (she's simply "Curley's Wife"), and her sex appeal is constantly rebuffed with hilarious lines like "You git away from us honest God-fearin' menfolk, you slutty no-good tramp!" Given the clear criticism of racism in this text, Steinbeck's predilection for sexism comes off as more than a little bizarre.

Still, the bond between George and Lennie, who would be lost without one another, has touched legions of high-school hearts for a reason; in its very crudeness it seems to tap into something primal, and rising actors Phil Tayler and Harry McEnerny make the many contradictions of this odd couple seem natural, even inevitable.  The charismatic Tayler is smart enough to make George not entirely sympathetic; sometimes bitter, even cruel, he's a smaller man than Lennie both physically and emotionally. Yet Tayler also convincingly communicates George's love for, as well as his exasperation with, his partner's simplicity; it's a remarkable, and remarkably sustained, performance - the third this year from this young actor. As Lennie, Harry McEnerny is if anything even more committed; he projects his character's mental deficits, and particularly his pain, with heart-breaking honesty and transparent technique.

There's also strong work from the reliable Erica Spyres as that good-for-nothin' so-and-so who inadvertently brings about Lennie's (and her own) doom; meanwhile Ed Peed and Calvin Braxton (as the lone black ranch hand, who is the target of constant prejudice) likewise find their own poignant moments.  The rest of the cast is able, but less experienced, and in their scenes director Allison Olivia Choat has less luck disguising the naïveté of Steinbeck's playwriting.

I've heard that the author actually conceived Of Mice and Men as a kind of "novel-play;" he consciously attempted to construct his book from dialogue which could be translated directly to the stage.  But somehow this slim volume has yielded an almost three-hour drama, in which the relentlessly earnest atmosphere can begin to drag - partly because beyond a potent conjuring of the loneliness of the human condition, Steinbeck just doesn't have that much to work with beyond foreshadowing and thematic repetition.  Trimmed of a good half hour, this could be a stunning work of theatre.  As it is, the shine of the acting at Moonbox still makes much of it compelling.

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