Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Grapes of . . . rock?

On the road with the cast at Trinity.  Photo: Mark Turek.

Like Boston Ballet, the venerable Trinity Rep down in Providence is celebrating its 50th anniversary; and to kick off the season they've gone back to their political roots, with a new production of Steinbeck's iconic The Grapes of Wrath. directed by company veteran Brian McEleney.  

So far, so good; Trinity has been on a roll of late, and I applaud any company that dares to tackle Steinbeck's grim saga of the downtrodden Joad family's exodus from the Dust Bowl to California. And there's much to praise about the production, including a remarkably moving performance from Anne Scurria as Ma Joad. 

But to be honest, there are also a few things here that make you scratch your head - the first being McEleney's decision to turn the script into a musical: believe it or not, a rock band culled from Trinity acting students sings the blues in between (and sometimes over) many scenes.  They're not a bad little band, and I suppose they're on the scene to give the story a sense of contemporary relevance. But doesn't it have that already?  And the trouble with rock on stage is that both its figurative and literal amplification always flatten the call-and-response of live theatre; only surreal sagas like Tommy have the right amount of emotional scrawl to withstand its aural onslaught. And even though the original songs penned by these talented young players are fine as far as they go, their adolescent angst somehow feels superfluous, or goes wrong when set against Steinbeck's titanic (and utterly adult) tale of American trial and tribulation.  I  mean, do we really need Patti Smith to wail to us about the Joads?  I don't think so.  She should stay put in Cowboy Mouth.

The second puzzlement is the set: an apparent 30's saloon, in the round, and broken up into several playing levels. Again, McEleny and his actors negotiate this curious space quite creatively, and conjure from its confines several striking tableaux (above).  But we can never quite figure out why we're in what sometimes feels like a bar with its own obstacle course. (I suppose because that's where you'd find a rock band like this one? Maybe.)

Sigh.  I must also add that the key problem in adapting the Joads' long journey to the stage is building an arc into their slow disintegration as they make their way west; but playwright Frank Galati doesn't quite succeed at that tall order. As it is, he pens some striking scenes; Granma Joad's death on the lonely stretch of highway is haunting (and effectively staged), and the family's eventual exploitation in what was hoped would be a Promised Land has something of the despairing power that Steinbeck intended.  But Galati can't quite build the thematic depth required to make sense of the novel's disturbing close, in which after a stillbirth, the forlorn mother finds herself nursing a dying man in an empty barn.

Still, the Trinity cast gives Steinbeck their all, and beyond Scurria's anchoring performance, there is solid work from company mainstay Stephen Thorne as son Tom, and promising turns from newcomers Ben Grills, Ted Moller, Zdenko Martin, Alex Curtis and especially Matt E. Russell.  New company member Mia Ellis also makes an impression in several cameos.  But a few other Trinity stalwarts, (Stephen Berenson, Janice Duclos, Joe Wilson Jr.) never quite find their feet, it seemed to me. So in the end, I'm afraid I found Trinity's take on Steinbeck more admirable in its intention than its execution.

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