Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Reading as a useful check on action: Actors' Playground brings Winnie Hoffman's "Choice" to Indy Reads Books

For the theater community, saving money is just one of the attractions of a public play reading. Indispensable as a production team is for real theater to take place, the cozy minimalism of a reading jettisons that requirement.

Constance Macy and Jen Johansen played middle-aged journalist friends in "Choice."
With Indy Actors' Playground at Indy Reads Books, a further attraction is the actors' selection of scripts to present. There is an investment by the selecting actor and his/her colleagues in putting across dramas they love to an audience of devotees. Pure collegiality joins forces with skill in acting with the voice alone, with a minimum of gesture.

Balancing this advantage, the actors accept the artificiality of holding notebooks and sitting in a row, working within these constraints to bring the work off as authentically as possible.

The March presentation on Monday was Winnie Hoffman's "Choice," selected by Constance Macy and read by her and six collaborators —  five playing characters (a couple of them doubling) and one to read stage directions. It was fascinating in a work with some essential spatial and temporal virtuosity written into it to witness the dialogue hot potato being tossed so expertly. One crucial scene in the second act has two conversations proceeding antiphonally, upstairs and downstairs, in the household of the beleaguered magazine journalist, the play's main character.

Dialogue at cross-purposes is threaded throughout "Choice," with jagged interruptions and initially well-lit trails that peter out. Jumps and cuts in continuity become almost hallucinatory. By fits and starts, we learn about the journalist Macy played and her difficulty separating the subject of a long celebrity profile from eerie personal parallels. Besides that, Hoffman, who wrote the book for "Wicked,"  makes the most up-to-date use of iPhone communication imaginable; texting is crucial to characters' interaction and several dopey miscommunications worthy of Ionesco or Beckett.

The ancients used a device of rapidfire dialogue (line-by-line alternation of speakers) known as stichomythia. Hoffman revs up this engine with lots of overlapping dialogue, as if linearity needs to be beaten down and pulverized in order to understand the way we live now. There are other precedents in how dialogue comes at us in the films of Robert Altman and in Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil."

Bringing up cinema, with its indulgent, lavish use of space and scene — the cast of "August: Osage County" chewed so much scenery it must have affected Oklahoma crop yields that year — raises another basis for commendation of Monday's reading.

The acting riveted the attention, no more so than when the middle-aged friends played by Macy and Jen Johansen have a bristling argument of the kind that usually separates people forever. The actors were, of course, sitting side by side holding notebooks. And yet every word in that passage struck home Monday night. They had to make the space between them bristle, and yet there was hardly any space.

Even when a director serves a play well, there's a sense in which the creativity poured into the rehearsal process challenges the play. A particular staging always finds a fresh way of supplementing the playwright's words, including those in stage directions. The effect, if it's done with skill,  both supports the play and talks back to it.

In that respect, Shakespeare is at once the most venerated and most criticized playwright who ever lived. And I mean "criticized" by the people who love his works and put them onstage. Even playwrights much more explicit in their stage directions are inevitably commented upon by insightful productions.

Brothers in crisis: Edmund (left) and Jamie Tyrone in Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
Take the verbose Eugene O'Neill, for example. "Long Day's Journey Into Night" last summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival glossed the final scene, a long monologue by the drug-addicted Mary Tyrone, tweaking the final tableau beyond O'Neill's text. Where the original says of her two sons "Edmund and Jamie remain motionless," this production had Edmund, the younger son, break down sobbing. Then, curtain.

The character most moved by Mary's illness was modeled, the play strongly hints, on O'Neill himself. To show Edmund losing it instead of being numbed by despair drew attention to the compulsion the playwright must have felt to redeem and transfigure his family's suffering somehow. The result was his masterpiece; the OSF wanted the audience to grasp that connection. The choice upheld at the end the compassion repeatedly thwarted in the autobiographical text.

No such directorial fillips, whether germane and inspired or otherwise, come up in a public reading. You get instead a kind of purity about the spoken words as interpreted by good actors. The play's possibilities as fully staged drama float overhead and stir the imagination. The players' sacrifices can seem worthwhile. So it was with "Choice" this month in its Indy Actors' Playground realization.

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