Monday, Jan. 31, 2011

Lost Amongst Characters At The Rep

Rep resident actors in an edgy non-linear drama.

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The Guys: Havin' a beer with Smoots (L) and Ernst (R)

The Appeal of Getting LOST In Complexity

Even the most concise synopsis for the Rep’s latest drama is going to sound unappealingly bewildering. The Rep’s studio theatre production of the very character-driven story is told on a nearly bare stage with only a few pieces of furniture, simple lighting schemes and relatively plain costuming. This isn’t a show that dazzles with shiny glossiness. This is a powerful, provocative drama that only happens to have a plot that requires a great deal of thought on the part of the audience. Not exactly what one would expect to become a runaway success at the box office, but this type of complex, character-driven story did carry the interest of well over 10 million viewers for over half a decade on national television.

In the winter 2011 edition of Milwaukee Rep’s Prologue, Speaking In Tongues director Laura Gordon mentions the thing she finds most compelling about the contemporary drama. “What resonated strongly for me about the play is the theme of connection—that we are connected to people in ways we may not even be aware.”  This is, almost word for word, exactly what J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse mention as being the central theme behind their long running, recently concluded TV series. There are quite a few parallels between the J.J. Abrams show and the drama by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell which predated it. The play’s episodic nature has a series of individual stories of individual characters overlapping into a bigger plot that explores deeper themes.

Speaking in Tongues is, however, much more compelling than the J.J. Abrams TV show. The play’s deeper explorations are centered around the deep human need to reach out and connect with others—the difficulty of maintaining the deep human connections we need as individuals. The purity of the complexity of that is far more sophisticated than the simplistic struggle between good and evil ultimately at the center of Abrams’ long-running show.  Also—Bovell’s drama is jaw-droppingly concise. There isn’t a single scene in the drama that doesn’t feel absolutely necessary to the overall plot. The nonlinearity of the plot can make the drama feel a bit indulgent in places, but on further inspection, everything is exactly where it needs to be. And the somewhat convoluted nature of the plot structure only serves to further illustrate the difficulty of human connection—the imperfect nature of communication that the title refers to.

The script is thematically quite dense. There’s quite a bit going on here . . . the beautiful thing about that is that it allows for an endless amount of discussion about the play. This is a really excellent one for discussion after the show. As open to interpretation as it is, I won’t attempt to get into detail on the deeper implications here. There’s a far more concise review of the show coming in this week’s Shepherd-Express.

Two more or less identical scenes at the same time.

Casting Against Type: An Evolution of Ensemble

Of course, if the production itself isn’t particularly interesting, the play’s not going to be engrossing enough to want to follow anyway . . . thankfully, the Rep has gone with a really seasoned cast for this one. Rep Resident Actor Laura Gordon directs a cast featuring a number of actors she’s been working with for a long time. Fellow Rep Resident Actors include Lee Ernst and Deborah Staples. Frequent Rep guest Jonathan Smoots is also present. The one person in the ensemble new to The Rep is Chicago-based actress Jenny McKnight. Four out of five people diving into this text have worked together pretty extensively, which really shows through in the production.

The opening scene involves two couples cheating on their spouses in a pair of hotel rooms. The two scenes overlap—nearly identical dialogues play out—line by line in unison. It’s a very earthbound scene that feels remarkably surreal. The act that it feels both very natural and organic and very surreal and poetic at the same time (some lines are even spoken in unison)  is impressive. A good portion of the initial rapport necessary for that kind of dynamic has happened over the years prior to most of these actors laying eyes on the script. That first scene alone is a perfect example of what makes a resident acting group so brilliant onstage.

And, of course, with a group of actors who have worked together for as long as four out of five (director included) have, there’s always the risk of one or another falling into typecast roles . . . the first of three acts in the Rep’s Speaking In Tongues are cast against type for the two male roles to brilliant effect. Jonathan Smoots 

In the past, we’ve seen Lee Ernst at his best in roles that show a degree of vulnerability. His turn as Scrooge in the Rep’s annual A Christmas Carol  a few years back was marked by a striking timidity beyond the miserly exterior. His Cyrano and his Richard III  with the Rep were brilliantly vulnerable characters. In the first act of Speaking In Tongues, he plays more of an aggressive guy—a cop who doesn’t seem to have much room for self-doubt until the opportunity allows for it. It’s interesting to see him in a role like that for those of us who have come to know him over the years. The vulnerability in his performances usually take central prominence. Here in the first act as it is throughout the play, Ernst is playing gruff, active men  with vulnerability lurking around the edges. It’s perhaps Ernst’s best performance with the Rep in a long time.

Also cast against type—at least in the first couple of acts—is Jonathan Smoots. Smoots has a really powerful stage presence. He’s played the devil, kings and other royalty. Here he’s cast against type as kind of a casual blue-collar looking gentleman. As dramatic as the transformation can seem for Ernst to play someone a bit more aggressively confident, it’s possibly even more of a revelation to see Smoots as more of a contemporary everyman.

There really isn’t exactly a “type” for Deborah Staples who had the opportunity to display a really impressive range some time ago as the solo actress in Milwaukee Rep’s production of The Blonde, The Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead. Here she’s playing both a woman suffering from severe self-doubt and a sternly confident psycho-therapist (or, perhaps psychologist) who is haunted by her past. It’s a captivating contrast.

I’m not as familiar with Chicago actress Jenny McKnight (I don’t ever recall seeing her prior to this show,) but she plays a pair of characters here that help balance-out the ensemble dynamic. He’s the wife of a police officer and then she’s kind of self-absorbed as the client of Deborah Staples’ character in the second act. Come to think of it, it’s quite an accomplishment on McKnight’s part that either of these characters come across in a very sympathetic light at all. Both of them could’ve read as being relatively heartless in less well-rounded performances.

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of Speaking In Tongues runs through March 13th at the Stiemke Studio Theatre. Call 414-224-9490 for reservations. A far more concise review of the show runs in the next issue of the Shepherd-Express.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alternatives

Speaking In Tongues is a potently provocative drama most effective for those interested in thinking about and discussing the show long after the final curtain. (And, really, this kind of play has the kind of appeal that should sell-out the full run of the show.) Those interested in a more straightforward drama that is no less intense should probably consider Youngblood’s Red Light Winter now through February 5th at the Alchemist.

Those interested in something far more socio-political by way of comedy may want to consider Next Act’s brilliant Big Boys now through February 14th.

Those interested in something socio-political that plays far more like a straight-ahead dram can look to the Broadway Theatre center’s Studio Theatre and Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Crumbs From The  Table of Joynow through February 6th.

And finally, those looking for a sharply stylish show that makes the bulk of its impact in overwhelmingly intense moments during the performance may want to consider The Skylight’s Jacques Brel, which also runs at the Broadway Theatre Center (on the main stage) through February 20th.

(There is a high standard of quality in local theatre, but I can’t remember a single weekend in the recent past where there were quite this many good shows all running at the same time within the city.)

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