Weekend workshops: Three’s a charm

By Rebecca Phillips

University Theater’s “workshop” productions, which have minimal technical requirements and rehearse only 15 times before opening night, are meant to give directors and actors the opportunity to isolate the most basic elements of a dramatic piece such as character, staging, and timing in a low-pressure forum. For first-time directors or seasoned actors who want to test their limits, the workshop is ideal.

Last weekend I went to see the three plays performed in the First Floor Theater of the Reynolds Club—True West, The Brute, and The Public Eye. I was pleased at times and uncomfortable at others, but on the whole I enjoyed myself and was encouraged by what I saw.

The Brute, a one-act by Anton Chekhov, was artfully staged by third-year Emily Boyd who showed talent for creating effective comic tableaux as well as natural patterns of motion and speech onstage. The play tells the story of an overly mournful widow called Mrs. Popov who is visited one day by the brutish Mr. Smirnov, who has come to collect on a debt owed to him by the late Mr. Popov. First-year Anna Christine was poised and effective, if smiling a bit of a nervously, in the role of Mrs. Popov, demonstrating appropriately subtle comic timing which was nicely complemented by Griffin Sharps’s gruff, enraged Mr. Smirnov. Sharps, also a first-year, was nicely committed to his high-energy character, although his constantly shifting eyes detracted from his command of the stage.

Naturally, Popov and Smirnov become enraged at each other, and their argument culminates in a pistol duel to the death, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Popov’s valet Luka. Evan Cudwoth was absolutely pitch-perfect in the role of ever-anxious, endearingly panicky Luka, his high-pitched squeals of terror eliciting peals of laughter from the audience. Of course, Popov and Smirnov do not kill each other, but rather wind up in each other’s arms at the end of the play, a fitting end for both.

In another exploration of romantic relations gone awry, the characters in Peter Shaffer’s The Public Eye, directed by second-year Daniel Sefik, find themselves entangled in a mess of their own making. Charles is a disgruntled husband convinced that his much younger wife Belinda is having an affair. The detective agency Charles hires to investigate the matter sends him Julain, a bumbling clown of a man who inadvertently winds up attracting Belinda’s affections.

In the role of Julian, Alex Fix was agile, bright, and though he spoke far too quickly and constantly had hair in his face, possessed an impressive physical control that garnered big laughs from the audience. Emily Bock, as light-hearted Belinda, gave a memorable performance full of subtle expression and gentle doe-eyed comedy, the composed counterpoint to Chris Wand’s frustrated straight man. There were moments in which the staging lagged slightly, but on the whole, Sefik, in his directoral debut, produced moments of genuine emotion and well timed physical comedy.

But the highlight of workshop weekend was, without a doubt, True West. This Sam Shepard play, directed by Dan Stearns and presented on a nearly bare stage without an intermission, is the story of two brothers, complete opposites, who must come to terms with their differences while house-sitting for their mother. Austin is a screenwriter in Hollywood, an Ivy League graduate who found success by living by the rules of society. He has come to his mother’s home to work on his new screenplay in peace, but is foiled by his slovenly brother Lee, who lives alone in the desert, drinks beer incessantly, and makes his money by stealing household appliances. “I always wondered what it’d be like to be you,” each of the brothers admits in the first act, and by the end the role reversal is complete, ending in the potential destruction of their family.

Christian Doll was the nasty, manipulative Austin whose “concern” for his brother was boundless as long as he had the upper hand. His performance was astonishingly real and terrifyingly on point as quiet jealousy of his brother became dangerous rage. In the role of beer-drinking, pain-in-the-ass Lee, Reid Aronson gave a performance that was complicated and empathetic. Busting out of all previous roles, Aronson was gruff and dumb, but displayed shocking integrity. We saw him change when, after a chance meeting with Austin’s agent Saul, Lee was given the chance to write his own screenplay, a “true-to-life western” that Austin dismisses as ridiculous. Second-year Nishan Bingam played the sleazy Hollywood producer with vigor and a heinous yellow blazer, while first-year Anna Aizman was nervous and sweet, appropriately confounded by her sons’ behavior when she returns at the end of the play.

This role reversal between the brothers led to a character shift masterfully directed by Stearns. He used and re-used pervious stage pictures to demonstrate their evolution into each other, placing Lee at the typewriter and Austin amid the clutter of beer and stolen toasters. Aronson and Doll mirrored each others’ body language and patterns of speech and, although they look nothing alike, I was convinced of their painful fraternity. Sam Shepard’s script is punctuated by moments of intense comedy followed by equally intense terror, but thanks to the clarity of Aronson and Doll’s performances, the audience was never left to wonder which was which. The end result was chilling and memorable.

So with the exception of some forgivable details that somewhat missed the mark, I would say bravo to all involved in the workshops. They pushed their limits, tested their audiences, and left me wondering what comes next.