Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Smithereen's SPIKE HEELS

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The legend of Pygmalion has been something of a fascination for authors and audiences alike over the course of a great many years. A sculptor falls in love with his sculpture in an client Greece and it echoes through into the early 20th century with Shaw and Henry Higgins and further still into Lerner and Loewe and My Fair Lady in the middle of last century. Then at the end of last century, contemporary playwright Theresa Rebeck tries a hand at the story of men trying to shape the identity of a woman in Spike Heels--a production of which is being staged this month with Smithereen Productions. 


Appealing on numerous levels, Toni Martin plays Gerogie--the woman in question. A working class woman struggling to make ends meet has begun to become introduced to classic literature by the guy who lives in the apartment below her--an author named Andrew played by David Franz. 


As the play opens, Georgie is visiting Andrew after a long day of working as a legal secretary--a job Andrew helped her get through a lawyer friend of his named Edward who is played by Nate Press. As the play progresses, we come to understand that both men have feelings for Georgie--a situation which is particularly complicated with respect to Andrew's wife-to-be Lydia (who is played Bethany Batson.)


Director Rebecca Segal renders a pretty sophisticated and organic feel out of a script that might feel a bit abstract and amorphous in places. It's hard not to read allegory into a story about smart woman who is being groomed in two different directions by two different men--the crude, cynical jerk of a lawyer and the sweet, romantic intellectual writer. There's a real clash of different cultural values sets on human potential . . . the type of themes that have been covered way too much over the years to seem particularly fresh here. Segal and company do a reealy good job of pulling an audience's interest away from the tired, old thematic end of the play by rendering really remarkably compelling interpersonal relationships. The character work here put in by the entire ensemble make the emotional level of the drama feel very, very organic. Very real. It's a pleasant distraction from the thematic nature of the story. 


Toni Martin's performance is beautifully empathic. There's subtle emotional intricacy in what she's doing here. As an audience, we seem to be understanding all of the emotional interactions with all of the characters through her. David Franz is given the least appealing character in the story to deal with and he deals with it pretty well. The character's intentions seem noble . . . he wants to help educate this woman to show her the intellectual life that she could be living, but there's a kind of an arrogance in any teacher/student relationship that makes him seem like a colossal jerk. 


Nate Press can make almost any role seem appealing and here he's given the opportunity to work with someone who, on the surface, is very, very sleazy. Rebeck gives the character so many lines that are so very, very flat--particularly quite early on in the play. Press is able to take those lines and make them work in a laid back approach to the character that seems to come from a genuine respect for him. The character is a jerk who is well aware of his jerkiness. In the wrong hands that could come across as a paper-thin glossiness ill-suited for the kind of depth its meant to acquire later on. With Press' performance, there's depth even in a few superficial lines. As a result, the transformation feels that much more real. 


Bethany Batson is probably given the biggest challenge here . . . she isn't really introduced directly until quite late in the play, by which time she has been discussed quite a lot. She has to show up in a plot that's already advanced pretty far and interface with it on a very intimate level without slowing things down at all. Batson does an admirable job of this. 


I came into the theatre fully prepared to be bored by yet another treatment of the themes it covers. Thanks to Segal and company, I was pleasantly surprised. This is a good production. 


Smithereen Productions' staging of Spike Heels runs through April 27th at the Underground Collaborative on 161 West Wisconsin Avenue. All shows are at 7:30 pm. For advance ticket reservations, visit Brown Paper Tickets.com. 

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