Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010

Finding The Center

Scattered Elements of Acacias THE SECRET GARDEN

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The work of Acacia Theatre Company can sometimes come across a bit uneven. There are a lot of elements that go into a fully-staged piece of theatre. The texture of a typical Acacia show ends up being a wide-ranging mix of qualities that can sometimes feel a bit discordant and disorienting. The best of Acacia’s work ends up being a balance of various levels of qulity with something remarkable in the center of it all. Acacia’s latest production—a stage adaptation of The Secret Garden—comes pretty close to reaching  that level of accomplishment.

The story was originally serialized in an early American literary review in 1910. It was later published as a book. A wealthy young girl learns the importance of others in a big house with an elaborate, closed-off garden. It’s a children’s classic. The story lends itself a bit better to its original episodic format than a consistent stage drama, but there is much in the book that takes to the stage remarkably well.

The adaptation was written by Pamela Sterling. It features a musical score by Chris Limber, which is played live—a three piece band consisting of cello, flute and piano. The music helps establish a mood and carry the story from one scene to the next without being too overpowering. In light of this, the decision to mic the performance seems a bit odd. Acacia performs at Concordia’s Todd Wehr Auditorium. The acoustics of the place are perfect. There’s a natural mix between voices and instruments that happens in that place. Amplifying the voice of the actors ends up unnecessarily amplifying their voices. It seems eerie and unnatural with artificial amplification in a space that small. Voices aren’t in sync with the rest of what’s going on. Occasionally there is distortion.

Once one gets used to the audio, the rest of the production feels pretty well balanced. A robin makes a rather prominent appearance in various scenes. It is played here by a puppeteer (Alicia York) in a red shirt with a tiny bird puppet. The puppet is scarcely visible, but the presence of a expressionless puppeteer onstage calls attention to it. It’s hard to explain how this works, but it does. It just works. Some of the acting is a bit stiff, but the overall texture of the performance is engrossing enough to hold the audience’s attention from beginning to end. Of particular note here is Alison Pogorelc in the role of the young heroine Mary. At eleven years old, Pagorelc is the right age for the role. Having worked with First Stage, the Skylight and the Florentine, Pogorelc has quite a bit of stage experience for someone of her generation. That experience (and impressive natural talent) are clearly evident here. Some of the more subtle moments in Mary’s transformation seem missing from time to time, but Pogorelc captivatingly renders the overall personality arc of a character her age. We see character wrapped-up in herself slowly opening to the world around her. The finer points of that journey may be missing, but Pogorelc’s performance here is really interesting. She’s found the emotional center of the character. With a firm understanding of the character, her story shines out amidst the complex texture of occasionally brilliant music cues, oddly naturalistic puppetry, mic distortions. At it’s heart behind all the strange foliage of a standard theatre show, Acacia’s Secret Garden is quite touching.  

Acacia’s The Secret Garden runs through March 7th. A review of the show runs in this week’s Shepherd-Express.

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