Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Clean, Concise Theatrical Insomnia

Next Acts A SLEEPING COUNTRY

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Next Act Theatre's latest show feels kind of like an anomaly. Melanie Marnich's A Sleeping Country feels like a reasonably satisfying half hour at the theatre. That it is actually a feature-length, 90-minutes without intermission ends up being a technicality. The only time the actual length of the show is significant is when one is walking in or out of the theatre. The rest of it slips by pretty harmlessly, which perfectly fine for a light comedy that seems willing to take an occasional glance at something deeper.

Betsy Skowbow plays Juliaa woman suffering from insomnia. She's a American of Italian descent. She was married once. She's engaged to be married to a guy who works in soap operasa guy named Greg who is played by Doug Jarecki. A  girl she knew growing-up serves as her psychiatrista doctor h=who is a bit of a mess lovingly played by Tami Workentin. Beyond the contents of this paragraph, we know very little about Julia. Skowbow plays the character very close to the surface of her emotions, which is perfectly fine, as the playwright hasn't found much depth for her to explore. This lack of depth would be a flaw if it weren't for the fact the play only feels like it's a half hour long. The plot rushes along with a lean, brisk economy. There aren't any extraneous scenes or lines of dialogue here. It all feels very, very well balancedexcessively light, but well balanced.

Skowbow does a good job of drawing sympathy in the role. She seems like a nice person who is generally trying to seek relief from her discomfort. That discomfort doesn't appear at all to be insomnia, though. Genuine insomnia and sleep deprivation has a tendency to tear at a person's psyche, resulting in a startlingly vivid depth of contrasting personality traits. There's restless energy bound by a kind of perpetual half-sleep of constant wakefulness. There's an overwhelming emotional climate that mixes with the cold, intellectual cynicism of someone who hasn't had the benefit of lasting sleep. Neither Skowbow nor Marnich are exploring this, though. So it doesn't really feel like insomnia so much as emotional restlessness that serves as a metaphor for other issues the character is dealing with.

Julia is a woman looking to be defined by her insomnia. When she goes to Italy to find out more about her disorder, she runs into a woman who truly is defined by (and finds strength in) her insomniaplayed by Angel Iannone. The character has the potential to be brilliantly iconica woman who has crafted herself into a dramatic work of art due to lack of sleep. Iannone seems to have avoided this type of characterization in favor of something a bit more humanless overdramatic. This decision works, but it would've been far more effective in a script with greater complexity. Certain isolated moments aside, the Italians in A Sleeping Country seem to be Chico Marx-like cultural stereotypes. It's fun in a light comic sense, but Iannone's character would've been far more intense as the kind of otherworldly, overpoweringly beautiful, overwhelmingly intimidating saturnine countenance that plays to the dramatic simplicity of the script. I know Iannone can do this. I've seen it do it onstage before. HellI've seen her do that offstage. It almost seems to be her natural posture. It's chilling. And it would've been a lot more effective than rendering the kind of complexity that she's carving out here. But it does work . . .

Doug Jarecki and Tami Workentin put in really solid performances here. Jareckiwho has had a hand in some great sketch comedy in the past, plays the lighter elements of two different Italian characters with considerable poiseshifting quite deftly to a deeper emotional posture at one point when the script calls for it. He's at his best here as Julia's exhausted fiancéea man who deals wit the staggeringly bizarre world of daytime soap operas during the day only to have to deal with the tragic restlessness of the woman he loves.

As Julia's psychiatrist Workentin gets some of the best lines in the play and she delivers on them perfectly. There's a really dark edge to the character that is totally in love with itself, totally apathetic about almost everything else and at the same time toweringly vulnerable. Workentin delivers on it brilliantly. Judging from her performance here, she's got impressively unique comic instincts. It would be really refreshing to see her play with a mood like thiswith dialogue like this in a more central role.  

Next Act Theatre's production of A Sleeping Country runs through April 7th at the Tenth Street Theatre. For reservations, call 414-278-0765.

 

 

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