Tuesday, July 14, 2009

This Week in Theater

I considered including in this post a review of the film that Catherine and I saw this weekend but, really, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is the spiritual equivalent of baked potato chips: a little bit of that sort of thing isn't bad for you but it has no nutritional/cultural value whatsoever... unlike the original film, which is a classic and should be rented immediately.

The Tin Pan Alley Rag, on the other hand, lands somewhere between Baked Lays and a nice big salad that's been a little over-dressed: strong performances—especially by Michael Boatman and Michael Therriault as Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin—and great renditions of the music by both composers pretty much compensate for the workman-like script by Mark Saltzman. The play imagines an all-night meeting between the two composers in Berlin's music publishing office; Joplin, now several years past his prime, has come to persuade the younger composer to publish his ragtime opera, Treemonisha. The conceit is not original, of course: a fictional meeting between two geniuses, one with his best work behind him, the other at the beginning of his career. And it's a difficult device to use effectively, I think, because how much biographical information can you cram into dialogue before it begins to sound a little like a student report? Saltzman's script, for the most part, avoids the awkwardness inherent in the bio-play with humor: lots of wisecracks by Berlin, a few instances where we as the audience know more than the characters onstage (as when Berlin says he has a new song that's gonna be a big hit: I Love a Piano) and one especially funny scene in which the two men are interrupted by a Tin Pan Alley wannabe who assumes that Joplin is the "colored composer" who was rumored to be the real author of Berlin's songs. But, ultimately, the device requires the two main characters to spend a good portion of the evening telling each other "The Story of My Life:" it's always interesting but I found myself thinking it could all have been done more artfully.

The very next day, Jessica Dickey went and proved me right. Her one-person play, The Amish Project, is also a fictionalization of history: in this case, the murders of five girls in an Amish schoolhouse near Nickle Mines, PA. Dickey is very careful to point out that her play is entirely a work of fiction: she interviewed no one and only added true details that she felt would "strengthen the texture of the play." It's an incredibly powerful piece, beautifully acted by Dickey, deftly directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde. We are given only glimpses of each of the characters in the story—including the gunman's widow, an Amish teenager and her younger sister, a specialist on Amish culture, a pregnant Latino checker, and even a few cryptic words from the gunman himself. These brief flashes are not complete character studies but each captures the essence of the individual as they attempt to reestablish some semblance of order to their lives in the aftermath of the tragedy. We never learn why any of this has happened—Dickey wisely and very cleverly steers clear of offering any explanation. Instead, we're allowed to consider the nature of forgiveness (the Amish families responded immediately to the horror by publicly forgiving their children's murderer) in a surprising and truly beautiful script. The run at Rattlestick has ended now but I'm sure this piece is just getting started: it's a taut and powerful production that ought to have great success touring to international festivals and theaters around the U.S.

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