Friday, May 18, 2012

Intersections of Intimacy with Affectivity

Unique contemporary rural American drama on the small stage this weekend.

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Affectivity Theatre Company opens its inaugural production t his weekend . . . a one-weekend-only staging of Melanie Marnich's Tallgrass Gothic. 


The show's director Samantha Paige tells me that this is going to be the only show that Affectivity does in Milwaukee. Not long from now, company founder Lineve Thurman will be moving to Florida and she'll be taking it with her. Well. Okay then. But how is the show?

 

Thurman stars as Laura. She's the object of much attraction from various ends of a small town ensemble. Laura wants to leave the town. SHe wants to get away from an abusive husband played by John Francis Reilly. Reilly puts in a pretty sophisticated performance. Marnich gives him much to work with. Yes, he's abusive, but abuse is an expression of his love. Okay, so it's really, really messed-up but marriage isn't exclusively a power trip for this character. He loves Laura and he's expressing that love in a way that isn't at all pleasant. It's hurtful. So he and she shouldn't be together, but there's complexity there. This isn't some paper-thin lifetime movie, even if a straight ahead description of the plot would probably read like the synopsis of a made for TV movie, it's got a poetic depth to it that goes way beyond what Hollywood screenwriters bang out every day. 

 

Likewise, Laura isn't a very simple character either. She knows she doesn't want what she's got but she doesn't know exactly what she wants or why she wants it. She's trying to pull herself out of the small town, but not in the most healthy ways . . . which is a bit tragic, because when we first meet her, she's having an intimate, tender moment by a man who is not her husband. We like her because its hard not to like anyone when we see them in these kind of tender moments. Thurman summons a great deal of inner storminess for the character to stumble through over the course of the play. It's no easy task, as the character is stumbling for the entire course of the play . . . it's really tricky to do that and maintain a sense of rhythm, momentum and character development. Thruman does a good job of maintaining the right momentum for the shows entire 75 minutes with no intermission. 

 

The Other Man in question is a restless figure himself . . . racked with guilt over what he's doing with Laura. He's played by Andrew Parchman in troubled everyman mode . . . its a role that parallels work he'd done in South Bridge with Uprooted Theatre earlier this Spring. Here the character is perhaps stronger . . .perhaps more silent. There's an uneasy restlessness about him that makes his interactions with Laura a bit more interesting than the classical tragic romance. 

 

Grace DeWolff plays Laura's best friend from way back . . .a woman named Mary. In addition to everything else she's proven she's capable of over the past couple of years, DeWolff proves that she can deliver a really compelling contemporary working class midwesterner. The kind of girl that everybody thinks of as one of the guys. Small, thin and more than a little crazy, but with a kind of intelligence and savvy that seems elevated and distanced from the rest of what's going on. She's really important to the full equation of what's going on in the play. In less deft hands, a role like this would feel a bit exaggerated. DeWolff wields more than enough savvy onstage to keep the emotions of Laura's best friend from coming across even the slightest bit exaggerated. 

 

The rest of the ensemble look good here. John Koller is the nice guy with only a few hints of savvy about him. The kind of guy who would have a tendency of saying things that he doesn't know the full significance of. Koller handles that good-natured intellectual thickness with admirable form. Philip Birdener plays Filene--a kind of a dark, scarred figure in the shadowy edge of the ensemble. He's got a dark side about him . . . always lurking about. Filene's nature runs the risk of making him come across like a plot device. Laura tells him at one point that he isn't so much a man with a scar as a scar with a man. Like Mary, he too could have come across with far less depth, but Birdener keeps the character's darkness firmly grounded. He's not a villain, he's an earthbound force of nature. Birdener does a good job of keeping him from being anything less or more than human. 

 

Six people in the ensemble, but we very rarely get to see more than two of them onstage at the same time. Melanie Marnich's script is a study in drastically contrasting forms of intimacy. It's a meticulous dissection of social and emotional intersections. We're only catching glimpses of a much larger picture . . . only seeing those all too fleeting moments in life where two people meet and have a moment together that is stripped of all artifice for one brief moment. Samantha Paige has found the right rhythm for everything here. Its dark and staccato, but with a nice emotional resonance that caries from one scene to the next. It's a very dark and earthbound debut for Affectivity. 

 

Affectivity Theatre Company's production of Tallgrass Gothic runs through May 19th at the Carte Blanche Studio Theatre on 1024 S. 5th St. Ticket reservations are available at Brown Paper Tickets.com

 

 

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