Saturday, Jan. 9, 2010

Capturing Restless Wisdom

Milwaukee Rep’s Yankee Tavern

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Steve and Susannah Barnes’ set for the Milwaukee Rep’s production of Yankee Tavern captures the feel of a whole in the wall bar in Manhattan. With a light haze pumped into the Quadracci Theatre adds to an overall grunginess of a bar that appears to have moved through the decades picking up and discarding various bits of decoration over the years.

In characteristically good performances, Brian Vaughn and Marti Gobel play an engaged couple in 2006. Vaughn plays Adam—a young graduate student who has taken ownership of the bar his father left behind after he passed away. Adam lets Ray, an old friend of his father’s, stay upstairs. Ray (played by Will Zahrn) is a man obsessed with conspiracy theories. Adam’s graduate thesis is on Ray’s theories about a possible conspiracy behind the September 11th attacks on the United States. The most impressive performance here is by Torrey Hanson, who is cast against type as Palmer—a stranger who wanders into the bar and orders two Rolling Rocks—one that he never drinks. Palmer is an interesting character with a kind of a quiet darkness about him. Not normally the dark and brooding type, Hanson renders a really interesting emotional performance of a very composed, very driven man.

The script itself is pretty good. Comedy slides into dark suspense in a very competently written script. The deeper themes that playwright Steven Dietz is grappling with in the script are interesting, but not particularly well executed. The parallels between the secrets we keep from each other and the secrets the government keeps from us are interesting and insightful, but not terribly well realized or integrated into the script, which spends a great deal of its time in a debate between Adam and Ray that isn’t nearly as interesting as it should be.

On the whole, however, the script is pretty solid. The Rep does a really good job of bringing it to the stage. It’s a very literate, very educated show. A lot of fun. And it’s very telling that the one major problem I have with the production is almost indefinable: Will Zahrn is clearly a very good actor. He puts together a very compassionate performance in the role of a man known for going on at great length about his obsession with conspiracies by people in high places. I don’t think I’d have a problem with his performance if I hadn’t actually known people like that. Zahrn’s performance lacks that wild sense of darkness that electrifies people who obsess over the darker side of people in power. The people I’ve known who can talk intelligently about the major conspiracies of the 20th century have a strange energy about them—there’s a kind of respect for the shadowy activities of those in power that manifests itself in a darkly ironic sense of humor that animates the edges of the psyche. These people have an inspired madness about them that seems perfectly rational. There's a crazy wisdom in their voices that comes across with very, very subtle humor. Some of this humor is clearl apparent in the script, but the performance doesn't quite pick-up on it.

Zahrn does a good job of presenting the overall picture of this type of person without quite capturing the subtle madness of it all. It’s a minor missing detail that ended up being a major distraction for me. Zahrn is talking about various bits of established trivia about contemporary conspiracies, and there’s passion in his voice, but it lacks the kind of subtle humor you’ll hear in the voice of those who actually follow various conspiracies. Some of this may be the direction as well . . . Director Sean Graney juggles all of the pacing and energy of the show quite well, but the character of Ray doesn’t quite have the kind of gravity he needs. He serves as the thematic center of the play and he isn’t quite as dazzlingly complex as he might’ve been. Of particular note here are some of Ray’s crazier theories. Zahrn delivers them with the same kind of energy he does everything else he’s talking about, but the humor in his voice could’ve been enhanced in those moments.

At one point, Ray’s talking about weddings being a conspiracy by big box bridal shops to make money . . . that and a few other moments like that could’ve been delivered as jokes with the kind of tone that makes one wonder if he really is serious. Someone who really IS emotionally disturbed by the kind of knowledge that might form an obsession about government conspiracies might engage in a personal kind of disinformation . . . throw out the occasional bit of theory that makes himself seem like he really IS crazy, just in case there really IS anyone in power who might think he knows too much. If you sound crazy, you also sound harmless. People let their guard down. And maybe they tell you a little bit that you didn’t know—more pieces of the puzzle because they don’t see you as a threat.

It’s a bit strange getting into all of this, because it really is a criticism of subtle bits of Zahrn’s performance that could’ve been casually enhanced. There really isn’t anything major missing here. It’s a very good production of a pretty good script. Had either the script or the production been just a bit more inspired, it could’ve been one of the best shows of the season.

 

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of Yankee Tavern runs through February 31st at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre. 

 

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