May 16, 2014

Just saw... On The Verge at New Rep

I worked crew on a production of On The Verge in my tiny hometown theatre, the Players Ring, in Portsmouth NH in, oh, 1998 or so. I absolutely fell in love with this play, and in my mind his dazzling flights of linguistic fancy is only rivaled in this century by Tom Stoppard. I would sit backstage and let the words wash over me.  It helped that it starred three of my favorite actresses on the planet - well, three semi-professional actors from Portsmouth whose skills could match (and best) many pros - Peggi McCarthy, Nickie Fuller (Farr), and Kristan Raymond (Curtis), who fed on the text as if it were fuel. Director Michael Gillette wisely put the words front and center.

I saw it again at Arena Stage in 2006 or so. What a letdown. The greatest/worst example of a play sabotaged by its production design that I can conceive of, and three actresses with zero chemistry. A full third of the audience was asleep, and another third left at intermission. A narrow platform diagonally spanned the arena theatre, suspended over a chasm. I was distracted by the possibility of a castmember falling into the void, at least 16 feet down. And the actresses weren't connected with the material at all (maybe they too were distracted at the prospect of plunging). They memorized the lines and delivered them clearly (the least that can be expected from professionals), but exhibited no indication they had the slightest idea what the hell they were talking about.

A few years later, just outside of DC, Rep Stage took a stab at it, directed by the guy who directed the original production. The three actresses were better, as I recall, and the production was OK... I just had a problem with the guy playing the male roles. I learned later that he had some kind of condition that affected the way he talked, which accounted for the odd, stilted delivery. I gathered that he was not their first choice (I was invited to audition a few months beforehand, clearly indicating the original actor had dropped out, and had I been available I'd've definitely gone).

And I'm just back from seeing New Rep's production. I would rank this as the best professional production I've seen, though I must admit that the Ring production still is the gold standard. I think the key here is the abstraction of the staging. All the moving bubble-wrapped screens aside, this was a very minimalist production, arguably too minimal. Three chairs served as cliffs, bridges, etc., and it took most of the first act for the audience to glom onto and buy into the presentation. Too long. It asked for too much imagination from the audience too soon, and quite a few checked out. The Ring's production, in my opinion, was less abstract and thereby met the audience halfway and brought them across the chasm, so to speak. And in a small theatre, the emphasis invariably went to the words instead of spectacle.

More evidence that an Equity Card or a LORT contract is no guarantee of artistic validity.