Sunday, June 21, 2009

Vanity's Theatre's First Reading

By Russ Bickerstaff
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It was a pleasant gathering of people in the lobby of the 10th Street Theatre. Hardly a huge crowd, but certainly more than enough of an audience to seem substantial—a very personable introduction for the newly-formed Vanity Theatre Company. People milled about before the show—a staged reading of Giant Days: a drama by Vanity Theatre Co-Founder Erik N. Ebarp. In Tandem/ 10th Street Theatre co-founders Chris and Jane Flieller busied themselves making sure everything was running smoothly with concessions and such.

The 7:30 pm start time came promptly. Only a few minutes afterwards, people began to filter into the theatre—both actors and audience. An amiable John Van Slyke introduced the show—and the Vanity Theatre Company. Poised and professional, he welcomed everyone with impressive brevity, allowing the staged reading of Ebarp’s Giant Days to sink in right away.

The reading ensemble was a nice, unadvertised mix of talent. Robert W.C. Kennedy, Dan Katula, Matthew Huebsch, Jonathan Wainwrgiht, Michelle Waide and others gave Vanity’s first public event a relatively low-profile, high talent feel.

The story began to settle-in with Peter La Bonte reading the establishing description of what sounds like a relatively rural Midwestern house in the very specific year of 2005. The premise that unfolds is pretty simple—a family that has had a farm for a very, very long time is suffering from a rough economy that’s about to turn worse. They have only a short period of time before the entire property is foreclosed due to debt.

The story is tidily set-up in two acts, each consisting of two scenes that run the course of Early April to Early October of 2005. Ebarp has stated that part of the inspiration behind Giant Days was Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, and the inspiration is vividly reflected in the script. A cast of 11 characters flutter around the center of the story—a central conflict between the matriarch in charge of the land (a woman in her miud-‘60’s named Ruth) and the Ward Best (a local boy who grew-up became wealthy and is now working for a huge corporation that wants to buy her farm and use it for a wind power operation.)

Ebarp infuses a largely uneventful story with some suprizingly interesting bits of allegorical symbolism. While there is a degree of subtlety to the script, the central conflict is made almost painfully obvious. And there’s little doubt what’s going to happen at the end of the play once the conflict presents itself. Ruth will NOT sell the farm. She’ll have to deal with a foreclosure and be forced to move out. This predictability makes the final 75% of the play feel like waiting for the inevitable—and there’s a good chance that that’s intentional. What we are seeing here is a parable for the kind of stubborn refusal to adapt to economic changes that has brought the US economy into the tenuous place where it is now. In a way, we are watching our own inevitable economic collapse play out in theatrical allegory. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable . . .but Ebarp makes it a bit difficult to enjoy even THAT discomfort, as the dialogue can feel a bit stiff in places. There’s an extended monologue by Best which feels like a dry economics lesson. While clearly capable of being realistic fleshed-out with halfway decent performances by talented actors, the characters seem a little flat. Yes, we can empathize with them, but the dialogue they speak often feels like an isotope of Midwestern folksiness. And whenever writers, politicians or advertisers employ folksiness, there’s always a vaguely condescending feel to what’s being presented. Whether intended or not, the characters represent a vaguely insulting depiction of the Midwestern US and, by extension, the US in general.
 
As it is written, Giant Days is an admirably unflinching look into the stubbornness of US economic behavior packaged in a tolerably good dramatic package. In a re-write with the right attention to detail, Ebarp’s drama could fulfill its potential as a thoughtful look into U.S. consumer culture. These are all, of course, general impressions of a simple reading that is by no means a completed realization of the idea. At best, these are initial impressions of a very promising script.

All quibbling about the script aside, it’s really nice to see something locally written in a cozy little reading on the edge of Spring. It was a very informally classy introduction to a theatre company that hopefully will have a long future of interesting, thoughtful theatre ahead of it. Welcome to the neighborhood, Vanity Theatre . . .

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