Saturday, July 24, 2010

Driven To Ensemble With Youngblood

Youngblood Theatres world premiere of Wilson's DRIVE ME TO ARSON

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Friday night, the UWM Peck School of the Arts played host to the Youngblood blood drive for the Blood Centers of Wisconsin. Myself and thirty or so others donated blood in the hours leading-up to opening curtain of Benjamin James Wilson’s new drama Drive Me To Arson.

The blood drive had no direct connection with the play, but Wilson’s somewhat gracefully surreal drama possesses the kind of symbolically open semantic architecture—the kind of provocative ambiguity that could make a person question the possible significance of seemingly unrelated elements both on and off stage. 

The set is very minimal. There’s a mattress and a couple of chairs. There are few props—An ice scraper. A mop. A clipboard. A book with blank pages. Wilson throws the audience into the machinery of the story with no real introduction. It fades-in like a slow-moving dream. Not certain of who these characters are beyond prop signifiers, the precise thrust of the plot is uncertain. As a result, the story feels sluggish and disinteresting at first. The ensemble does a pretty good job of drawing the audience into the plot, but the one-hour play spends quite a bit of its time getting to an engrossing speed.

Bereft of any rigidly defined setting, the Drive Me To Arson is exceedingly character-driven. Here’s a quick look at the characters:

David Rothrock as Avery—Short, pleasant and articulate, David Rothrock begins the play in bed with Regina. She’ reading a book. He’s wearing pajama pants. He begins to have a conversation with a janitor. He’s under the impression that he may be having a dream. Elsewhere a psychiatrist has a conversation with a client—an interaction seemingly unrelated to Avery and his dream. We find out over the course of the hour we spend with him that Avery’s an awful poet and an arsonist. A couple of other characters call him a loser. Actually, there’s not a whole lot in what he says to make us think otherwise. The fact that the character is charming at all probably has a great deal to do with Rothrock’s performance. Rothrock’s remarkably good at delivering reflective dialogue onstage, which gives Avery a kind of vulnerability that keeps a lousy poet and serial arsonist interesting for the play’s full hour. 

Tommy Stevens as The Janitor—The janitor is paid to mop—a fact that he doesn’t mind mentioning numerous times over the course of the play. A clean-shaven Tommy Stevens returns to a role not unlike the one he was playing in last year’s Savage In Limbo. He’s a casual, blue-collar guy with a job to do. He knows his place. The fact that he’s doing the job in kind of a surreal place is solidly juxtaposed against Stevens’ casual workplace demeanor. He’s paid to mop. The fact that he’s not actually mopping . . . merely swabbing a dry mop against a dry floor is probably not significant, but as mentioned earlier, Wilson’s story is ambiguous enough to be somewhat provocative—anything could be significant or symbolic. In its best moments, Drive Me To Arson is a funhouse prism—a dramatic thematic apperception test. The nature of the Janitor is an interesting detail in this and Stevens plays it with casually stylish, unassuming poise.   

Tess Cinpinski as Regina—Regina is Avery’s girlfriend. At first she’s silent . . . only reading a book and laughing occasionally. She spends the early part of the play merely being iconic. Once she’s allowed to speak, Cinpinski begins to develop more substance. She’s frustrated and restless. The darkness beneath her eyes amplifies an exhaustion that goes way beyond dream, hinting at something far darker than dream. With a character who spends so much time as part of the set, Cinpinski is remarkably reserved when called on to verbally articulate for Regina. The majority of her interaction is with Avery. The majority of her performance is weary frustration. And though most of this weary frustration is pointed at a character played by a charmingly vulnerable Rothrock, Cinpinski manages to remain likeable throughout the play under the strength of her own flavor of vulnerability.

Andrew Edwin Voss as Boscoe—Boscoe is a man plagued by demons and voices that threaten his stability. Voss brings a gravity to the stage that keeps the instability from coming across manically. There’s a slow determination about his performance. The stability in Boscoe’s instability as fed through Voss’ performance has an oddly calming effect on the stage. Played with more active aggression, the character could come across as a monster. The majority of his actions are paired-off against a psychiatrist played by Rich Gillard. The muscle-versus-intellect dynamic feels a bit disinteresting until Voss is given an opportunity to allow Boscoe some genuine and direct pleas for help from the psychiatrist. Things open-up considerably after an outburst, giving Voss an opportunity to explore some range of emotion in the character. In one of the drama’s better bits of humor, Boscoe and the psychiatrist stop verbally dueling each other and turn to analyze Avery.  

Rich Gillard as Dr. De Luca—Rich Gillard is faced with the challenge of playing possibly the least likeable character in the play—an arrogant, conservative psychiatrist who suffers from brief bursts of brutally honest reactions to his clients’ problems. It helps a great deal that Gillard kind of looks like Freud. That being said, the psychiatrist’s approach isn’t entirely Freudian—it’s a mishmash of different techniques. The doctor is the intellectual authority here and there is some sense of compassion that does not betray professionalism. Gillard balances it all quite well. Aside from a moment where he goes into arrogant detail about his credentials, we don’t find out that much about him. He’s a bit of a cipher, but Gillard’s precision in the role keeps it enjoyable. The crisp precision of Gillard’s performance here contrasts quite well against the more informal demeanor of the rest of the characters.

The drama plays out in staccato scenes that give the overall feel of the production sort of a patchwork feel. One might expect a challenging, experimental work, but the story is quite linear, following a clear and apparent plot arc from beginning to end. Director Lillian Tillson has found fluidity in the brief scenes as actors gracefully shuffle themselves around. Lights flash, furniture moves and actors rearrange themselves in a brief, minimalist dreamlike ballet between dialogues. Dream may not be precisely what’s going on here, though . . . 

Precisely what is going on here is has some pretty strong parallels with Ariel Dorfman's Purgatorio. Youngblood’s new drama has a surreal edge to it that justifies its particular take on themes of guilt, love and loss, distinguishing itself from the Dorfman drama so recently staged by Next Act.

 Drive Me To Arson is a fun little hour of drama punctuated by some interesting bits of humor.   

Youngblood Theatre’s production of Drive Me To Arson runs through July 31st at UWM’s basement studio theatre. 

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