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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Left in the Dark

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   In March, the fledgling Spiral Theatre hosted one of the theater season’s most pleasant surprises with its production of the 1969 Leonard Gershe play Butterflies Are Free. Spiral managed to take a dated and tiresome romantic comedy and stage it as an exceedingly entertaining love story with subtle shades of accomplished acting. Ruth Arnell starred as a young pseudo-hippie who falls in love with a blind musician living next door, played by Ryan Dance. This month, Arnell takes a leading turn as a blind person, in Spiral’s production of the Frederick Knott thriller Wait Until Dark.

  Arnell stars as Susy, a blind woman who finds herself in the possession of a sought-after doll given to her by her husband, Sam, played by the talented Nate Press. Unbeknownst to Susy, the doll is filled with heroin, and an unsavory gentleman named Roat (Matthew J. Patten) is very interested in getting his hands on it.

  The thriller’s plot is driven by fear and suspense, which could prove tricky to bring to the stage. One of the major factors that made Spiral’s production of Butterflies so memorable was the intimate space that Spiral was operating out of at the time. Spiral has since moved to Bucketworks, where a great deal of that intimacy is lost. The performance space at Bucketworks is not immense, but the space lacks the kind of immediacy that distinguished Spiral’s old space on National Avenue. Wait Until Dark director Doug Giffin refers to the performance space at Bucketworks as “cavernous,” so he has moved the production to a small corner of the space in order to maximize the intensity of the play.

  “Much of the suspense in Wait Until Dark results from the mental games the crooks play with poor Susy,” Giffin says.

  According to Giffin, the cast will be up to the task of bringing that emotional intensity to the stage. “As a director, I feel very blessed with the tremendous group of actors appearing in the show,” Giffin says.

  Given the interesting mix of actors, he has ample reason to be happy. Arnell proved in her Butterflies performance that she has the emotional gravity to carry the center of a play. Nate Press, appearing in his first production with Spiral, is an excellent addition to the cast. He’s previously worked with Milwaukee Shakespeare, Bunny Gumbo and a host of other local companies. Matthew J. Patten also makes for an interesting addition. Patten is a talented actor, but he has almost exclusively appeared in contemporary comedies, often in drag. His thin and towering physique, however, should make him a serious villain.

Spiral Theatre’s production of Wait Until Dark runs July 11-26.