Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010

Comedy and Christianity At The Boulevard

The Boulevard continues its 25th Anniversary Season with THE SAVANNAH DISPUTATION

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Having grown-up outside of anything resembling organized religion, Christianity has always seemed funny to me. Truly insightful theatrical works about Christianity can be difficult to come by. Not exactly a brilliant look at Christianity, the enjoyable Evan Smith comedy The Savannah Disputation nevertheless comes close to being the long sought after insightful comedy about Christianity. A production of the play opens tonight at the Boulevard Theatre. I write this having just returned from the final dress rehearsal of the show.

It was a cozy, little informal crowd at the Boulevard Theatre for the final dress rehearsal. The audience slowly filtered in, met by amiable Artistic Director Mark Boucher. The real estate in what is quite possibly Milwaukee’s smallest theatrical stage is used remarkably well for the production. I don’t recall ever seeing a Boulevard Theatre set quite as well-developed as the one it’s using for Savannah. There’s a beautiful bit of background writing about the play in an online pdf put out in conjunction with the Writer’s Theatre’s production of the play. In it, the playwright explains that he wants the set to look “100% as realistic as possible.” The Boulevard production delivers on this remarkably well. I’ve always enjoyed the closeness of actors to audience at the Boulevard, but what’s really great about this production is that the physical atmosphere seems much more authentic than any other Boulevard production I’ve ever seen. This is the very, very clean house of a couple of single, aging sisters—one of those living spaces that doesn’t exactly feel lived-in. This would normally feel artificial and sterile, but the level of detail put into the set and its proximity to the audience give it a very real feel.

Somewhere between comedy and drama, the play tells the story of a pair of sisters who are visited by a very young woman looking to convert them to Christianity from dirty, heathen Catholicism. The more stubborn of the two sisters enlists the help of her priest to beat the young Evangelist in a casual debate. It’s cute, it’s funny, and there’s very little going on here that isn’t in the realm of somewhat elevated intellectual discussion. Not terribly provocative stuff, but there’s enough going on between the characters to keep it all moving quite briskly. From what I saw in the Boulevard dress rehearsal last night, there’s very little dead weight. What I saw lacked precision in comic timing, but the important thing was that all four members of the ensemble seemed to have the emotional center of their characters down—absolutely essential for the foundation of a comedy with some serious drama to it. The characters have some depth to them and a flatly comic presentation of the characters might’ve given the impression of a more polished production, but it would’ve lacked the kind of depth the Boulevard cast seems to be successfully reaching for. 

Sally Marks has a stern feistiness about her as the stubborn sister Mary. The towering Joan End plays to the sweeter end of the emotional spectrum. The character on the page runs the risk of coming across as kind of an intellectually vacant person, but End has a quiet intelligence to her stage presence that adds a considerable amount of depth to the character without actually saying a word. The proselytizing, young Evangelist is written in the script as kind of a paper thin superficial beauty with an inner complexity that only becomes apparent in time. Not being burdened with the mannequin, magazine cover beauty that seems to be hinted at in the script, actress Jamieson Hawkins has the opportunity to go straight for the depth, which she does quite well. Patrick Perkins rounds out the cast as Father Murphy—possibly the most complex character in the show for various reasons. Perkins does a pretty good job of bringing that complexity to the stage.

The Savannah Disputation is a three-person comedy with four people. Though four people are onstage for much of the play, the energy only ricochets between three of the characters at any one time. This adds an interesting stylistic dynamic to the production given the audience’s proximity to the action. The real success here is bringing a theological discussion between a few characters close enough to the audience that it almost feels uncomfortable not chiming-in. The urge to join-in the discussion is almost irresistible at times. That the production is capable of delivering this kind of sensation prior to opening night is saying a lot, especially as there isn’t anything terribly profound or provocative being expressed in the actual conversation itself.  

The Boulevard Theatre’s production of The Savannah Disputation runs through January 16th. A review of the show runs in next week’s Shepherd-Express. Call 414-744-5757 to reserve tickets. 

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