The Old College Try

Once more, local universities take up theater's challenge

In one imagined ending, the two actors (Jenn Bock, Michael Orman, both endowed with abundant stores of variety) reverse roles; other variations are as short as one word. But mostly they treat their mission seriously. By the end of this pithy journey, a viewer is reminded that although in The Seagull Chekhov alludes to Nina's "universal soul," he got that slightly askew. It was Chekhov, not Nina, whose soul was universal.


Those seeking something closer to home than Russia or Spain might consider the Washington University Performing Arts Department's staging of George F. Walker's Escape from Happiness. Walker is Canadian, but this loony comedy about the screwiest sisters since the MaGrath girls in Crimes of the Heart could be set in any large American city.

Fetching ensemble: The House of Bernarda Alba is a treat.
John Lamb
Fetching ensemble: The House of Bernarda Alba is a treat.

Details

The Seagull and The Nina Variations: By Anton Chekhov; directed by Jason Cannon (Seagull). By Steven Dietz; directed by Deanna Jent (Nina). Performed by Fontbonne University Theatre on alternate dates November 17-20 at the Fine Arts Center Theatre, 6800 Wydown Boulevard, Clayton. Tickets are $10 ($5 for students and seniors). Call 314-889-1425 or visit www.fontbonne.edu for a rundown on what plays when.

The House of Bernarda Alba: By Federico García Lorca. Directed by Gary Wayne Barker. Performed by Saint Louis University Theatre through October 8 in Xavier Hall, 3733 West Pine Mall (on the SLU campus). For ticket info call 314-977-3327 or visit www.slu.edu/theatre.

Escape from Happiness: By George F. Walker. Directed by William Whitaker. Performed by Washington University’s Performing Arts Department through November 20 at the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre in the Mallinckrodt Student Center at Washington University, 6445 Forsyth Boulevard, University City. Tickets are $15 ($9 for students and seniors). Call 314-935-6543 or visit ascc.artsci.wustl.edu/~pad/.

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There's so much going on here, it would be foolish to try to outline the plot. But as eldest sister Elizabeth, the lesbian attorney, puts it, this is "a family that is more or less in perpetual crisis." When the play begins, Junior (who is married to the middle sister), has just been brutally beaten up. As he writhes on the kitchen floor, does his daffy mother-in-law call for an ambulance? No. She forces Junior to stagger to his feet and dance. That unusual and original scene is but a prelude to an evening of surprises and reversals that leaves the viewer almost as exhausted as the sisters. At one point we learn about a scheme to get rid of the neighborhood lowlifes; the intricate plan is founded more on momentum than on understanding. That same premise holds true for Escape from Happiness. Sometimes the plot is tough to follow but, as directed by William Whitaker, the production never loses its momentum.

The performances creep up on you. At the beginning of the evening, there's a sense that the cast hasn't quite yet figured out how to attack all this slightly surreal verbiage. But by evening's end everyone is smoothly in the groove. A special nod to Liz Neukirch, whose sympathetic police officer is spot-on from her first scene.

Despite the fact that Walker has emerged as one of Canada's most successful dramatists, he has never learned how to end his plays. They almost all drag on for too long. So it is here. But until those final minutes, by which time the audience's patience is being strained, Escape from Happiness provides an evening of invigorating inventiveness.

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