Sunday, March 25, 2012

Provocative Complexity in HONOUR

Renaissance Theaterworks stages nuance in Joanne Murray-Smith drama

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Quite often at intermission I’m assessing my feelings of the first part of a show. I’m able to channel out what other people say because they are having casual conversations about other things. Every once in a while, I’ll find myself sitting next to people who are having conversations about the show, though. And they’re thoughts get tangled up in mine through no fault of their own. It doesn’t happen very often. Yesterday’s matinee with Renaissance Theaterworks may have been the first time that ever really happened for me.

I agree with what I heard of all three of the conversations that played out around me regarding Laura Gordon. She’s playing a woman named Honor and she’s doing it brilliantly. Honor is a published poet who gained some national attention years ago. She has since married a respected journalist played by Brian Mani. The two of them have, as near as we can make out as an audience, a happy, healthy relationship. They have an adult daughter played by Karen Estrada. The journalist finds himself drifting off into an affair. Gordon’s poet is the picture of emotional strength in the role . . . a very deep strength that Gordon is very, very excellent at portraying. With this I guess I’m agreeing with everyone else sitting near me who was having a conversation about the show at intermission.

Where I take issue with these strangers is what they thought of Greta Wohlrabe. She’s playing a journalist who is doing a piece on Honor’s husband. As such she is interviewing him. Honor’s husband begins to have an affair with her. She is only a few years older than their daughter. The woman sitting in front of me seemed to think that the character wasn’t portrayed as being convincingly seductive. The role as written by Joanne Murray-Smith is very, very ambiguous in certain areas and the early conversations between her and Mani’s character early on could be read in many, many different ways, but I don’t think that it was intended as a simple seduction. Mani and Wohlrabe seem to be playing as more of an inadvertent thing that ends up being a function of various needs between the two characters that are playing out. Bt it’s not a “sloppy seduction,” as the woman sitting in front of me seemed to suggest because it’s not really a seduction.

These are two characters playing out an equation of human need that is at odds with common sense for a whole bunch of different reasons, but it’s not something that’s premeditated—at least not as a personal, physical or emotional interaction. This kind of brings me to a point the woman sitting next to me made in her conversation about the play at intermission. The script clearly suggests that Wohlrabe’s character is very bright. (Both Honor and her husband make not of this early on in the play) The woman sitting next to me seemed to think that, if that intelligence was at all present in the script, Wohlrabe wasn’t picking up on it at all. She was playing the character flat when she’s supposed to be impressively intellectual. I would disagree with this. There’s a subtlety to this woman’s interactions with both Honor and Honor’s husband that speaks to a very contemporary kind of intellect. (And here, like both of the other characters who are roughly my age in the play, I fall back on generational stereotypes to back-up my point.) She’s fiercely intelligent in the contemporary sense. She doesn’t need to know all the labels and definitions of things . . . modern intellect is not knowledge about facts and details and specifics, but an understanding of how information works. For better or worse, this is the modern intellectual—someone who, quite often, is self-taught. She is someone who sees the system and tries to work beyond it for a greater individuality within the system. At least . . . that’s what I’m getting from the way Wohlrabe is playing her. To the credit of the playwright, there are a lot of different ways to play the character. There’s enough dialogue here to suggest a simple seductress who is trying to take advantage of an old man’s affections. To her credit, Wohlrabe doesn’t play the character like that at all. It’s a much more nuanced and complex portrayal than that.

Mani’s performance here echoes his performance in Renaissance’s Blackbird in the ‘09/’10 season. He’s playing a man who has passions that make him look like a very unsavory person in certain respects, but he’s playing it with a degree of complexity. This is kind of important as it is up to Mani’s performance to deliver a good portion of the emotional blow of the split with Honor. In order for us to feel that impact, he has to be at least a moderately nice guy—someone we can identify with. If not, we wonder what Honor sees in him in the first place. Mani does a really good job of playing him in a balanced way. Some of the most intimate and emotionally charged dialogue with Gordon is very, very sparse. This is really natural in the world beyond the stage when important things come up in conversation. People speak in fragments in emotionally charged moments. It can be murder trying to get that to seem normal onstage. Mani and Gordon do an excellent job of bringing that to the stage here.

Karen Estrada plays to the scattered elements of her character in a very interesting performance here. She’s got a really strange entrance here . . . we meet her as she has just been told that her mother and father—who appeared to be a very happily married couple for decades are now completely split-up. Not an easy place to open up with a character onstage. She’s scrambling to try to understand what’s going on. Emotionally with a character like this an actor has to hit the ground running, emotionally speaking. Estrada not only hits the ground running, she does so without trying too hard to show that the character is thoughtful and more intricate than the moment reveals. Anyone would want to do that with this type of character. There’s a kind of compassionate need to be an advocate for this kind of character. Other characters don’t seem to respect her here. They don’t seem t think she understands what’s going on. She does. There would be a desire to launch that onto the stage from the first moment, but Estrada lets the shock spill out of the character when we first see her, which makes her feel very authentic.

At some point in that first conversation, Honour’s daughter is asking her about signs. There must have been signs that things were falling apart, right? This was something that the woman sitting next to me felt was kind of unrealistic about the play if I recall correctly. She felt that there were ALWAYS signs of a relationship falling apart before it actually happened. I don’t know . . . I think the emotional horror of it is that it could happen without undue warning. One moment you wake up and things just . . . change. Realistic or not, it’s a very, very emotionally intense drama. People attending a matinee were discussing it quite deeply during intermission. I think that says something . . . a really provocative end to the season for Renaissance.  

Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Honour runs through April 15th at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio theatre. For ticket reservations, call 414-291-7800. A far more concise and coherent review of the show by another critic runs in the next Shepherd-Express.  

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