November 16, 2007

UT actors breathe life into historic play’s difficult roles

The first production of Look Back in Anger on the London stage was considered a revolutionary presentation, both thematically and stylistically. Audiences were shocked by the idea of a serious dramatic work that focused entirely on middle-class domestic disputes, and apparently audibly gasped when the curtain went up, revealing the character Allison Porter actually ironing, of all things, on stage. Pregnancy, infidelity, upper-middle class-girls marrying upper-lower -class boys­­—all this was very shocking stuff in England in 1956.

When you take the shock value away from the play, however, there isn’t much left. Jimmy Porter, the show’s lead, is a sarcastic and angry, somewhat educated upper lower class young married man. Allison Porter, his wife, is a mild-mannered, somewhat educated upper middle class women who tends to let people walk all over her. Cliff, a friend of the Porters, is loyal to Jimmy. Allison’s friend Helena Charles is very sexually attracted to Jimmy’s abusive personality. Allison’s father, Colonel Redfern, is a vague, old-fashioned, sweet, harmless old fart.

Throughout the play, various bombshells are dropped, and the characters respond as you would expect them to, apparently without developing or changing. It’s very much like a modern television soap opera; there are certain conditions on how the characters will behave, and they sort of bounce around, interacting with each other like ions in a test tube—occasionally exchanging an electron or two—but never really changing in any fundamental way.

That said, this production did well with what was, after all, fairly poor, dated material. Steve Balady’s interpretation of Jimmy, while somewhat flat, was powerful in its anger, and consistent aurally. It’s quite hard for an American to do a Cockney accent for two hours, shouting at the top of his lungs for one of them, without sliding down into Cornish or up into Welsh. Jacob Marshall, as Cliff had a little bit more trouble with the accent than Balady, but his range was a little greater, and his physical humor was quite good.

Each of the characters (except the Colonel) is allowed a 20-second out-of-character monologue at one point or other during the play, and Candice Gallagher, as Allison, pulled hers off quite brilliantly. In the last few minutes, she takes the entire register of the production up a few notches. Ilana Kowarski, as Helena, has a superb physicality. It was a little odd to see a character described as “blue-blooded” eating a dinner roll with her fingers, however.

The play tended to be a little difficult to follow because of the great emphasis its direction seemed to place on getting through the material quickly. The action moves from one shocking revelation to another, but without giving enough space to any one surprise for its effect to be felt. By Act II, I was pretty shell-shocked, whereas with a little more time to breathe, I think I might have felt more entranced than beaten up. Then again, given the long form of the play (run time is about two hours), it was understandable that speed should be a priority.

The scenic design and technical decisions were, as we’ve all come to expect from UT, exquisitely thoughtful and superbly executed. The lighting, in particular, contributed greatly, heightening the highs and lowering the lows through the use of red gels and other warming and darkening tones. Unfortunately, the smoking that took place on stage necessitated extra ventilating measures to be taken, and the hum of the ceiling extractor got rather irritating by show’s end. The interstitial punk rock soundtrack was a good choice, helping to contextualize the play somewhat, and helping to keep up the energy of the show. Scene design might have been improved by a little more general squalor and slovenliness, but I have great respect for the desire to keep the presentation minimal, and the apparent multi-zone effect of the furniture layout was very good.

Overall, the show was a very decent, whole-hearted attempt at a rather thankless task. “It’s not something everyone will like,” said director Ethan Stanislawski. Brutalism is always a tough medium to sell, but if that’s your sort of thing, this would make an excellent Saturday night outing. And after all, it is one of the more important plays of the 20th century, historically speaking. “We thought it could be very poignant for some U of C students,” Stanislawski said. Basically, Mommy Dearest fans will love it; the rest of you will feel a little uncomfortable. But it’s worth it to stretch yourself a little every now and then, isn’t it?