By Holli Harms
Near where I live, the tasting restaurant is all the rage, dishing up several small meals that are unusual and of course, tasty. Food columnist Adam Ried describes the tasting restaurant as a place where no real conversation happens. You do not go and sit with others and discuss things over a long languid meal. No. You talk about the food, mainly its presentation. How beautiful it sits on the plate and will the next bite be a contrast or a compliment. The focus is on the many different looks and tastes the chef has created for you. Short tastes, a bite here and one there, not a meal. A meal is where we pay attention, find the small nuances of friends and loved ones. A simple meal on a simple plate or bowl, the food is enjoyed, understood, and the evening is shared. In the tasting venues there is none of that.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying the same should be said for the one act. The one act can be the best meal of them all, having to ration the truth of the story down to a few words and moments. But care must be taken with a one act: direction not get in its way, presentation not over power it and thus dilute the patron’s experience of the work.
On a night of three one acts written by Signature Theatre’s very prestigious alum, I saw presentation that overwhelmed the works and instead of enhancing the experience detracted.
The first up The Sandbox by Edward Albee. Mommy and Daddy (husband and wife) have brought Mommy’s 86 year old mother to the beach to bury her though she is still very much alive. Mommy and Daddy will stay the night on the beach and wait for Grandma to expire. This is their final duty to her and then they are free of her. Do they want her dead? Probably. After all they haven’t really been thrilled to have her with them. Grandma says that they took her from the farm and brought her to their house, “Where they gave me my own nice place under the stove… gave me an army blanket… and my own dish… my very own dish! So, what have I got to complain about? Nothing, of course. I’m not complaining.”
It’s a powerful play about death and aging and children’s duties to a parent as they become the child. Albee’s words are direct, powerful and funny. The Sandbox is a funny play, however, the direction of the piece so stylized that it’s humor was lost in all that style.
The second piece in the evening, Drowning by María Irene Fornés’ came after a 9 minute pause.
The “9 minute pause?”
Here it is: The curtain goes down on The Sandbox. A projection reading,“9 Minute Pause,” comes up on the curtain. An actor enters from the audience and sits on the lip of the stage. He carries a 1950’s radio. He turns it “on” and over the speakers we here music: various genres for the next nine minutes. The actor sits and smiles and sings along and honestly none of this was engaging. Maybe for the first minute, but after that …no. All of this was “necessary,” because the set for the next show is being built behind the curtain.
There is building going on.
For a one act.
Drowning – the curtain now rises on two large walrus-like creatures dressed in human clothes sitting at a table, in a place that is completely indescribable. All that construction and we have no idea where we are.
So here in this “place” Roe is showing Pea a newspaper wherein Pea sees a picture of a beautiful young woman and instantly falls in love with her and wishes terribly to meet her. Mikeah Ernest Jennings’ performance of Pea is that of a sweet, gentle newborn to the world. His love for the girl in the picture palpable. Roe and Pea are waiting for Stephen another large bulbous type creature. They wait and read the newspaper and Pea learns about snow drifts and snow men and then Stephen arrives. He steps into the room. Slowly. Everything is slow. Then the lights go out and we wait while the actors find their new spots on the stage and the lights come back on and time has passed and Pea is asleep and Roe and Stephen comment on his gentleness and then the lights go out again and then up again and time has passed and Roe met the girl, but she was repulsed by him. His appearance made her hate him and thus he is in tremendous pain over his physical appearance. He hadn’t noticed it until her repulsion. Then it ends. A lot of construction for a very minimal play.
At the end the lights go out, the curtain comes down and a 15 minute intermission happens allowing the audience to get up and take a break and the crew to “build” yet another set for the third and final piece.
Three different pieces and three completely different sets created each night at the expense of the patron.
The third and final play of the evening is, Funnyhouse of a Negro by Adrienne Kennedy. The lead character Sarah, a writer living in New York City, is torn between her two selves. Her self that is white and her self that is black. Her father was black and her mother white and her skin is yellow and she hates her skin that is so much like her father’s. The other characters in the play are extensions of Sarah, other selves she would prefer to be. They include the real life persons of Queen Victoria, the Duchess of Hapsburg, Patrice Lumumba, and Jesus Christ. Sarah conjures them and her father and tries in her apartment, at her desk, to understand the hate she has for the father and his blackness.
Where the previous two pieces were quiet stiltedness, this is loud and overloaded with yells and screams and sound. And the set! Well that was one of the most industrious fifteen minutes I think I have ever experienced in the theatre. An elaborate set of levels and walls and doors. But, honestly, just not necessary, for in all of this “production” value are wonderful actors trying to tell us this tale especially Chrystal Dickson as Sarah. She is as good as it gets – drawing us in with her proud pose and stunning confidence that came from within and not from the set.
These plays would have been better served on simple platters where their “tastes” would have been savored and where the patron would have left with the satisfaction of a full meal.
In honor of Signature Theatre’s (James Houghton, Founding Artistic Director; Erika Mallin, Executive Director) 25th Anniversary, Signature Plays revisits the work of three Legacy playwrights with Edward Albee’s The Sandbox, María Irene Fornés, Drowning, and Adrienne Kennedy’s, Funnyhouse of a Negro. Directed by Lila Neugebauer (A.R. Gurney’s The Wayside Motor Inn), this trio of plays, all produced during their author’s original Playwright-in-Residence season and presented together for the first time, celebrates Signature’s rich and diverse history over the past quarter century.
The cast includes Nicholas Bruder (Signature’s Angel Reapers), Crystal Dickinson (You Can’t Take It With You, Clybourne Park), Tony Award nominee Alison Fraser (The Secret Garden), Pia Glenn (You’re Welcome America), Ryan-James Hatanaka (Signature’s Big Love), Mikeah Ernest Jennings (World of Wires), January LaVoy (Signature’s Seven Guitars), April Matthis (Hollow Roots), Tony Award nominee Sahr Ngaujah (Fela!, Signature’s The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek), Phyllis Somerville (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Tony Award winner Frank Wood (Signature’s Angels in America, Side Man).
The design team includes Mimi Lien (Scenic Design), Kaye Voyce (Costume Design), Mark Barton (Lighting Design), Brandon Wolcott (Sound Design and Original Music). Marisa Levy is the Production Stage Manager. Casting by Telsey + Company, Karyn Casl, CSA.