Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Chosen: Authority In The Silence of A Small Space

Compelling Intellectual Drama With In Tandem Theatre

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Eric Schabla (L) Bill Watson (R)

In describing a show it’s so easy to fall into impersonal vocabulary. Consider the following words: “A coming of age story about two boys growing-up in New York during world war two.” There’s a perfectly ordinary collection of words describing a show, but it doesn’t say a thing about Matt Daniels, Bill Watson or the importance of sitting house left when attending the show.

 In Tandem Theatre continues its season with Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen—a coming of age story about two boys growing-up in New York during world war two. They’re both Jewish kids who have fathers who are in positions of intellectual authority. At stage right we have the Sunders’ study. It’s kind of sparse and conservative. This is the intellectual home of Danny Saunders (Andrew Bosworth) and his father—Rabbi Saunders (Bill Watson.) The Saunders are old-school Hasidic—very conservative. At stage left, we have the study of the Modern Orthodox  Malters—Reuven and his father David—a scholar. Things are very easily-placed as we look at them onstage—the conservative intellectuals on the left and the progressives on the right. Things get considerably more complicated as things progress. Yes, it’s a coming of age drama, but it exists on a very intellectual plane. There’s a really compelling statement being made about the importance of silence in there…and it’s always fascinating to hear an audience in silence—especially when its attention has been drawn to it . . . but it’d be kind of boring to go into much detail on that here . . . 

Theatre is about seeing people tell stories. Matt Daniels plays a person telling the story of growing-up in New York as a Jewish kid  during world war two. He’s the human end of the story telling itself because he’s playing a character talking about himself in a very conversational manner . . . Daniels brings the story of Saunders to the stage with a flair for the conversational art of storytelling, but he brings something more to light than just that. He weaves in and out of various other characters in the course of the story. I reember him playing multiple roles in First Stage’s production of A Wrinkle In Time, but seeing Daniels fluidly move from fully-realized character to fully-realized character is a lot of fun here. It’s a relatively small element of the play, but it’s an opportunity to see a talented actor do what talented actors do so well—pretend to be other people.

The polar opposite of Daniels’ performance up there has to be Bill Watson in the role of conservative Rabbi Saunders. Watson is the head of the Acting Program at UWM. SO I know he’s an actor, but the role he’s playing as the head of the acting program at UWM is kind of how I think of him. I’ve rarely seen him onstage. Here he’s playing ld school authority and he’s doing it extremely well. (It’s one of the most powerful performances I can remember having seen this season.) The modern age respects a different kind of authority than an earlier age. It used to be that authority could be wielded by nature of its own authority. Now we need proof. You gain authority by having achieved a sense of authority in some way and even then you’re subject to criticism. That’s the modern world. Someone walks onstage wearing a crown or a clerical collar or a police badge and we can imbue that person with authority for the sake of completing the illusion as audience members, but to be able to walk out onstage and just exude authority without saying a word . . .  THAT”S really difficult. And Bill Wattson does it brilliantly here. I have no idea how he’s doing it, but the light just sort of falls into him onstage. Some of the work is done by the script and Matt Daniels as an adult Reuven TELLING us that he’s this huge authority, but Watson’s doing most of the work himself and he’s doing most of it in silence. It’s intense. And its powerful. And when the emotion springs out it’s overwhelming, whether it comes out in blistering anger or tender paternal affection. This is a really, really good performance.

And I guess this brings me to my last point…the play is crafted really well by Posner and director Chris Flieller. It fills the intimate space of the Tenth Street Theatre really, really well. But so much of this play is about the move from pre-modern intellectualism to modern intellectualism—from conservatism to progressivism. And nowhere is that more present than in the subtle variations of Watson’s performance here. And you’re just not seeing all of it if you don’t see it from the seats that face Watson as he sits in the role of the Rabbi sitting at his desk. So if anything here sounds interesting, see the show. And see it in those seats there—in the smaller section of seats at house left. It’s a very, very powerful experience if you’re open to it. Open seating means that you can sit wherever you want to and for some reason people think that means it’s okay to think of the intimate studio theatre as a proscenium. Don’t make that mistake here. This is  powerful show and its that much more powerful if your seeing it house left facing Bill Watson.

In Tandem Theatre’s production of The Chosen runs through March 25th at the 10th Street Theatre. For ticket reservations, call 414-271-1371 or visit In Tandem online.

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