Friday, February 20, 2009

Theater Review: Psychomachia

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

Play information at the end


Anyone who has been reading these blogs knows that I am a fan of theater, and have a warm place in my heart for the independents, aka off-off-Broadway. Then I heard about a production group called The Bridge Theatre Company, a DIY (with sponsors) troupe that sponsors readings of new, yet produced plays. In this case, it was Jennifer Lane’s Psychomachia.

The definition of psychomachia (translated as "Soul Warrior") is, according to (I kid you not, it was the best definition I found) muppet.wikia.com, “a literary concept named for a Latin poem by Prudentius. The poem dealt with the inner conflict within one's soul, between virtue and vice, through allegorical representations.” In other words, the old devil and angel on one’s shoulders trying to influence one.

This was not a standard theatrical production, but rather A Next Stop Workshop, where the actors are lined up on stage with the script, sitting on chairs, while they read their parts. Due to the static nature of the actors, the stage directions are read out loud, here ably by Matthew Groff. This reading was directed by Robin A. Paterson.

If I may digress here, when I was editor of a college newspaper many years ago, I saw a reading that I thought was terrible and gained the public wrath of the theater director of the school. Now I see what the process is supposed to be, and it is quite powerful.

The play is a well-written family drama with some sparks of humor, but it is inevitably going to be compared to August: Osage County. As I describe parts of it below, anyone who has seen or read A:OC may catch on to it as well. Please note that while I don’t think this play is derivative, all I’m saying is there are similarities.

[Ashlie Atkinson]
The story centers on Lydia, played by Ashlie Atkinson, and let me make this clear right out, this woman can act, Jack! She’s been in a number of indie films (5 of which are in post-production) and was a semi-regular on the cable show, Rescue Me. Ashlie handles Lydia strongly, never letting her slip into a clich√©, and puts on her character like a second skin. And I’m not saying this because she also skated for Gotham Girls Roller Derby’s Manhattan Mayhem team, under the name Margaret Thrasher. Next thing you know, she’ll be playing bass with Suzy Hotrod, though the acting world needs her more.

[Christian Campbell]
Lydia is the surviving twin, as her brother, Johnny has committed suicide in a schizophrenic manic attack. Lydia still has conversations with him, both through flashbacks and within her mind (hence the play title). Christian Campbell plays Johnny as focused, yet subtly insane, with high intelligence (the type of role Freddy Rodriguez may play). Actually, Johnny is verbally one of the hardest roles in the show, with lots of patters of information and thick philosophical leanings. Christian manages to keep the dialog flowing despite this, as it would be easy to make Johnny sound like a nutcase rather than hyper focused. Canadian-born Christian had pretty much started his career in the cult classic Degrassi Junior High (as Todd), and continued on as semi-regular in such shows as TekWar, Malibu Shores, The $treet, All My Children, The Book of Daniel and quite a few films.

[Jennifer Laine Williams]
Their younger sister, Charlotte, is played by Jennifer Laine Williams, whose previous show, The View From Here, was reviewed at this blog, dated November 12, 2008. Charlotte’s character is somewhat muted in the early stages of the show, but becomes a key fulcrum to the story. Jennifer, who is physically smaller than anyone in the cast, brings the entire theater to a complete standstill at one point in a very shocking moment that would make Edvard Munch proud. This character is very different than the one she played in the earlier play, and Jennifer brings some nice layers to the role, rather than having her fade into the background in the early stages of the story.

[Debra Jo Rupp]
The mother of these siblings, Margaret, is played by Debra Jo Rupp. Margaret is a loud and self-centered alcoholic, who almost seems intent on single-handedly bringing the family to its knees in the wake of her son’s death. Debra is widely known for her comedic acting (the mother in That ‘70s Show, Jerry’s agent in Seinfeld, Phoebe’s sister-in-law in Friends, and so many others), but even with the humorous bits (and Margaret gets both the most laughs and some of the strongest pathos), Debra shows just how good she is on the dramatic side, as well. While she pulls some of the painful and pained lines in the show, she never fails to be a sympathetic character under Debra’s interpretation.

[Kevin Geer]
Her husband and father to the brood is Edward, portrayed nobly by Kevin Geer, a character actor of note who appears regularly on stage, screen and television; one of those “I’ve seen you in everything, but I can’t remember your name…” In other words, he is a true journeyman actor. Again, this character could be played for a buffoon, or emotionally unstable, but Kevin not only makes him sensitive, but gives a wonderful slow burn that builds through the entire piece right until the end, when he (and Debra) left me wanting more, to know what happens to the characters.

[Eric Michael Gillett]
Eric Michael Gillett’s role of Dr. Harold Telsey is also a pivotal one, if quite short. Though not in the play much, Telsey is sort of like a moon whose gravitational pull has a decaying affects on both generations of the family. Eric plays him quietly, and thereby subtly, never giving an indication on the surface to the internal turmoil that he causes. While the character could be made to be antagonistic, which would be the easy way to play him, by holding back Eric becomes more of an enigma, strengthening his place.

[John Calvin Kelly]
The last character is Lydia’s boyfriend, Ezra Stark, who is aptly named because he is the most underwritten character in the piece. John Calvin Kelly breathes life into Ezra, which is required. But there needs to be more interaction with him, to flesh him out. Perhaps if he showed up at the hospital and became part of the drama there? I’m not sure, since I can’t do fiction. While there are two important scenes with him in the second half, he comes across more as a place for Lydia to react to, rather than being, well, there. John makes as much as he can with the role, making a 2 dimensional role into 2-1/2.

The story is mostly a drama, with some very strong comedic bits, and a few shocks as well. As a workshop, I’m not sure if this is a reading of a final product, or one in transition. There are a couple of places where characters can be fleshed out a little more (mostly Harold and Ezra, and perhaps Charlotte), but it is well on its way.

On a personal note, again, I thank the company for its splendid work. By just sitting in a chair, they managed to convey real tears, strong emotions, and a clear purpose, one that could easily have been lost by the static nature of the stage. I have a newfound respect for theatrical readings, and look forward to others.

Theatre 54 @ Shetler Studios
224 West 54 Street, 12 Floor
February 20th - 3:00pm & 8:00pm
February 21st - 8:00pm
Reservations: rsvp@thebridgetheatrecompany.com
www.thebridgetheatrecompany.com

Mission Statement: The Bridge Theatre Company is a New York-based ensemble of American and Canadian theatre artists dedicated to the cross-border development, workshop and production of new plays. Founded in 2004, The Bridge is a division of Theatrical Development Groups (TDG)…and the resident theatre company at Shetler Studio, a theatrical complex comprising 22 upscale rental studios including two theatres in the heart of the Theatre District – offering a unique infrastructure to support Bridge projects form discovery through development to performance and beyond.

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