Monday, October 20, 2014

They Beat Dead Horses, Don't They?

Sometimes an evening of bad theatre is not as mysterious as its author(s) intended. One can look for someone to blame -- the director, the actors, the costume designer -- but the real culprit is the playwright. What's the problem?
  • In some cases, a playwright is so in love with an idea that he simply can't let it go.
  • In other cases, a playwright is incapable of editing his own work.
  • In some instances, a playwright has hit on a good idea but doesn't know how to stop writing more and more scenes.
  • In other instances, what may have seemed brilliant in a playwright's mind (and might even have read well on paper to a producer) turns out to be a crashing bore onstage.
Sadly, this was the case with two dramas produced in repertory at the EXIT Theatre this month by the folks at Wily West Productions. Red flags start flying in my mind whenever I notice that the sound design is better than the script (or that the set design is more interesting than the acting). While it may be intellectually challenging to probe a production's weaknesses, what struck me as particularly odd with these two works were the bitter ironies that seem to have escaped their respective playwrights.

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Written by Morgan Ludlow and directed by Wesley Cayabyab, Drowning Kate is structured as the hybrid of a traditional ghost story and the tale of a mad scientist who has fallen much too deeply in love with his research project. Scott Cox appears as Dr. Harry Onslow, who has been working on a controversial medical process that could allow drowning victims who have suffered from hypothermia to be resuscitated and brought back to life. Needless to say, Harry is struggling with a few technical and personal problems as well.
  • Having been fired from several research jobs, he has resorted to "borrowing' computers, hardware, and software from his previous employers that will enable him to continue his experiments.
  • Harry's current residence is an isolated cabin near a lake. As the play begins, he has been cut off from civilization by a fierce storm and a lack of wireless connectivity.
  • His wife, Kate (Colleen Egan), who is also a physician, has grown bored with their research and is more than a little put out by the fact that Harry hasn't the slightest idea that she's three months pregnant. Kate is supposed to start a job at a nearby Indian reservation, which Harry interprets as an act of acute betrayal.
Harry (Scott Cox) cradles  Kate (Colleen Egan) in his arms
in Morgan Ludlow's Drowning Kate (Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

After Kate mysteriously falls through the ice and drowns, Harry drags her body back inside and puts in a desperate call to his sister, Shelley (Genevieve Perdue), who drives eight hours through snow and storm to reach the cabin where Kate lies in a cold coma. Following Shelley's arrival (which brings a sliver of common sense back into Harry's life), brother and sister engage in trading accusations about who could have done a better job caring for their dying mother. Hint: Harry was always too busy with his research to participate in important family matters.

Meanwhile, as howling wolves (or could they be werewolves?) are heard throughout the storm, Kate starts to thaw, occasionally emitting animal-like grunts and terrifying screams that will have no trouble keeping the native wolves at bay. Harry, of course, is thrilled that he might get closer to meeting his research deadline with some concrete proof for his theory. Shelley is appalled by her brother's selfish delusions and Kate's obvious physical and mental deterioration.

Kate (Colleen Egan) stands over the sleeping Shelley
(Genevieve Perdue) in Drowning Kate (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Drowning Kate employs a series of videos in which the frustrated characters explain their concerns and motivations while scene transitions are taking place onstage. However, instead of approaching Drowning Kate as a story about an obsessed scientist who has compromised his clinical ethics and destroyed his marriage while in pursuit of his research goals, the play makes a lot more sense if treated as a metaphor in which:
  • Harry is a frustrated playwright whose latest project has gone through a series of unfulfilling workshops. 
  • Kate's dead (or "undead") body is the script that refuses to come to life.
  • The three-month-old fetus in Kate's womb is the hope for the play that might have been made viable if only Harry had acted like an expectant parent instead of an obsessive lab rat who has completely lost touch with reality.
Shelley (Genevieve Perdue) tries to communicate with what's left of her
sister-in-law (Colleen Egan) in Drowning Kate ((Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

* * * * * * * * *
Krista Knight's Un-Hinged: A Silent Opera may only last 70 minutes but there were times when I felt like it would never end. The great irony is that its protagonist, a house painter named Glen (Rick Homan), begins the play by explaining to the audience how much he cherishes silence (to the point where he and his wife have divided up their chores according to which ones require noise and which do best with silence). In her program note, Wily West's Executive Producer, Laylah Muran de Assereto, writes:
"One of the things I love about Krista Knight's writing is her ability to use foreboding and menace with a surgical control, gloved in poetry and vibrant imagery. She uses subtlety the same way our other playwright, Morgan Ludlow, uses bursts of absurdity; to disarm perception and open you to emotional possibilities. She seduces you with that poetry and then unnerves you with the animalistic, aggressive side of our human psyche. Rick, Cameron, Genevieve, and Scott bring you right into the disturbing reality of a family with secrets as experienced by an outsider who is himself perhaps the creepier and darker of them all, both for his fixation and his own secrets."
Rick Homan as Glen in Un-Hinged: A Silent Opera
(Photo by: Jim Norrena) 

That's not how I reacted to Knight's drama, whose questionable charms quickly wore thin on me. I found it extremely curious that, for someone who supposedly craves silence, Glen can hardly keep his mouth shut. As someone who has invested so much time and love in painting the house which the audience sees, he's watched the family's children grow up and had to deal with the amorous advances of the family's boozy matriarch, Elaine (Cameron Galloway).

Elaine (Cameron Galloway) and Glen (Rick Homan) in
Un-Hinged: A Silent Opera (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

While Glen may be at a loss to understand why Elaine's grown children, Maryella (Genevieve Perdue) and her sullen brother, Russell (Scott Cox), want nothing to do with him, it seemed pretty obvious to me. Having grown up, lost their innocence, and recently lost their mother, they're eager to sell the house and move on with their lives. What they have absolutely no desire to do is lock horns with the weird house painter who could never keep his nose out of their family's business.

Knight's clumsily-written drama (which requires its actors to handle several flashbacks) often felt stilted; its writing almost amateurish. Wes Cayabyab's stage direction did little to strengthen Knight's script. While Rick Homan and Cameron Galloway had their moments, Scott Cox and Genevieve Perdue's acting often proved disappointing.

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