Monday, Sept. 24, 2012

Boulevard's LIFE X 3

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The Boulevard Theater tackles intellectual drama in triplicate with the opening of its new season as Mark Bucher directs the Wisconsin premiere of Yasmina Reza's Life X 3. 

It's a four-person ensemble drama. The same situation is played out three different times with three distinctly different outcomes. We see the significance of subtle variations in temperament and how they effect a single evening and several lives in a subtly drastic way. It's an interesting premise that is rendered without too much inspiration or insight in the script.


Not that the story is entirely without it's charm. We have one couple arriving for dinner with another couple one evening earlier than expected. Joe Drilling plays Henry--a gentleman who has been working on the same bit of research for an academic institution for several years without publishing. He is on the verge of submitting his paper for publication. Siddhartha Valicharla plays Hubert--an esteemed associate of his who may or may not have the ability to advance Henry's career.


Just as Henry was unprepared for Hubert's arrival, he is equally unprepared for the news that someone else has published a study very similar to what he is about to submit for publication. This could mean years of research for nothing. This is the central conflict around which much of the dramatic tension revolves. The tension is complicated by the presence of the wives of the two men, played by Jamieson Hawkins and Rachel Lewandowski. 


The tension is rendered in three different ways by the playwright. All three variations are presented without intermission in a single dramatic burst punctuated by light cues and the occasional bit of music. The subtleties of the change from one version of the scene to  the next can be interesting to follow in places, but only for brief and fleeting moments. 


As Henry, Joe Drilling's performance is lacking something. Yes, he has a firm grasp of the basics of the role, but there's little personality in it. And without that personality, the intricacies of the character's stress don't seem all that compelling. We don't get much of a sense of the passion for the work that this guy has been diligently trudging through for three years, so we don't get a sense of his relationship with his work. Even if he's not particularly interested in the work for the sake of the work, we don't get much of a sense that he's doing this to get ahead in the academic world for its own merits, so we DON'T get a very strong sense of his relationship with others. To his credit, Drilling doesn't appear to be trying to exaggerate the differences on the character's temperament between the three different versions of the story. This is a good thing as the lines could've read for three pretty dramatically  and unrealistically different takes on the same character.  The problem with this is that the character doesn't come across as being terribly dynamic either. He's lost in there somewhere. . . and all it would take would be a little bit more confidence in Dirlling's approach to the material to really bring that out. As I say, he's got the basics down. He just need sot find the personality in those basics that make his portrayal of the character seem like a fully-realized human being onstage. 


As Hubert, Siddhartha Valicharla has an opportunity to really take a role of authority and run with it. He's got this amazing accent from India. In the course of the three different versions of the story, he's playing a character who makes a pretty dramatic change from being an out an out jerk to being something more human. Valicharla isn't quite there to take control of it, though. He's got the confidence the character needs, but he doesn't seem to be tapping into the full potential of his stage presence. An actor with an accent like his has the opportunity to exude a powerful, nation-spanning sense of authority here. The character he's playing is the foremost authority in his field . . . an intellectual giant, who for the most part, has the arrogance and ambition to match. If only Valicharla would embrace the natural intensity of his stage presence, this performance could be amazing. When you run into someone at a University who is a genius in his or her field (someone who doesn't sound native to English) that non-native accent amplifies the impressiveness of their presence a lot more than intellect alone. You're that much more acutely aware that you're in the presence of the worldwide authority on something and THAT is a very, very humbling experience. Valicharla is capable of having the look and physical presence of an academic genius in this role and he's got many of the movements and mannerisms down perfectly, but the dialogue walks casually across the stage when it needs to take a much more subtly commanding presence than he's giving it here. 


The rest of the cast fares considerably better than Drilling and Valicharla. Jamieson Hawkins is very shrewd and calculating in the role of Henry's wife Sonia . . . a character who had qualified to be a lawyer. Hawkins holds an admirable sense of authority in the role that doesn't quite have the opportunity to soften when the script calls for it. This being said, Hawkins' authority is more than effective when it needs to be. The character holds authority by sheer force of analytical intellect. It's rare that a character gets an opportunity to show this as explicitly as Sonia does here and Hawkins takes advantage of that to beautiful effect in a few stray moments.


The talented Rachel Lewandowski is given kind of a complex role in that of Inez--Hubert's wife. She may be the least simplistically-defined character of the quartet. She seems to consist almost exclusively of dichotomies. On the one hand, she's capable of totally obsessing over the lack of control she feels over arriving at dinner with a run in her stocking. This speaks to a very rigid need for personal control. On the other hand, there is more than enough to suggest that her relationship with alcohol might not be perfect, which suggests something of a lack of control. She's submissive to an overbearing husband and yet she's also capable of fierce individualism. True, these conflicting factors play out to different degrees of prominence depending on which of the three versions of the story happens to be inhabiting the stage at the time, but Lewandowski does a really good job of finding just the right  shade to play at just the right time. 


These characters are, at their heart, all essentially the same throughout all three of the scenes. Slight changes in temperament and circumstance prove to show relatively dramatic differences in the way the characters relate to each other. This is the most interesting to follow in Lewandowski's character partially because Inez is just a bit more murky than the rest of them, but mostly because she's done such a good job of playing up the subtle differences between the moments in each of the three variations. Hawkins' performance would be just as fascinating to watch if her character were given just a bit more complexity for her to explore. 


Director Mark Bucher makes a really interesting choice in staging this script, but the script's lack of insightful inspiration requires a cast that can trick it into meeting a potential that the words alone can't quite achieve. This cast doesn't quite manage that. 


The Boulevard Theaters production of Life x 3 continues through October 14. For ticket reservations call 414 – 744 – 5757.

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