The Old College Try

Once more, local universities take up theater's challenge

Nov 16, 2005 at 4:00 am
University theater is on display this week with a vengeance. Here in St. Louis we have come to rely on area colleges to provide the kinds of challenging offerings that some of our more professional venues tend to shy away from. And more often than not, they're done well.

Certainly, Gary Wayne Barker's haunting Saint Louis University mounting of Federico García Lorca's 1936 tragedy, The House of Bernarda Alba, is as professional a production as anyone could hope for. The baleful story begins on the day Bernarda's husband is buried. The tyrannical Bernarda locks her house and condemns her five young daughters to spend the next eight years in mourning. What ensues is a mesmerizing meditation on women without men. As the Spanish sun beats down, spreading heat through the courtyard, the viewer observes five women in heat, eager to even look at a man.

Lorca, who was murdered during the Spanish Civil War just two months after completing this play, was best known as a poet. Yet he insisted that this script was "a photographic document." If Barker has not staged Bernarda Alba as poetry, he at least has directed it poetically. The dialogue flows with the melodic texture of a verse play (which it is not). The entire cast excels. There is not one single performance for which a viewer has to make special allowance because this is "only a student production." Starting with Katie Consamus, whose totem-pole Bernarda is as rigid as the cane she carries, continuing with the five daughters (Tina Bruna, Nichole Fischer, T. Nicole Kirk, Sarah Price and Lynn Zimmers, who transforms the simple act of cooling herself with a damp rag into a sensual experience) and including Lily Hannan as the longtime housekeeper, this all-female cast is in harmony with Lorca's premise that "to be born a woman is the worst punishment."

Jim Burwinkel's unit set is a marvel of doors and pillars and archways and stairs, and he has lit it with great imagination. At night, the bleached stucco walls reflect distinct colors, as if each hue represents a different daughter: scarlet for one girl's passion, azure for another's yearning. Michele Siler's costumes also enhance the evening's magic. The production runs less than two hours — but the effect of the experience, eerie and hypnotic — lasts a lot longer than that.

Color also plays a pivotal role in Fontbonne University Theatre's staging of Anton Chekhov's 1896 masterwork, The Seagull. To some theatergoers, the very name of Russia's greatest dramatist connotes an evening of gloomy, torpid theater. But good Chekhov is staged in bright, bold colors with movement and humor. There's lots of color here, lots of humor, lots of life.

Set on a lakeside country estate, there are more affairs in The Seagull than in last week's episode of Desperate Housewives. Nearly everyone in this charmed circle of elite gentry is in love, but with the wrong person. Konstantin (Daniel Lanier), a melancholy young writer, is hopelessly enamored of Nina (Rory Lipede), an aspiring young actress. Nina soon finds herself competing with Konstantin's actress mother (Lavonne Byers) for the attention of Trigorin (Charlie Barron), a renowned writer incapable of loving anyone. All this unrequited love, and its ensuing misery, makes up the fabric of the evening. "People are ridiculous," the doctor muses. (There's always a wise doctor in Chekhov's plays; this one is also having an affair.) That sense of the ridiculous is clearly evoked here in a production, directed by Jason Cannon, that can elicit howls of laughter, then turn on a ruble and leave the viewer suspended between breaths.

Terry Meddows portrays the sage doctor with an old-shoe weariness that makes you forget that Meddows is the most facile clown in town. This is the kind of serious clowning that brought Bert Lahr success in Beckett's Waiting for Godot. As the celebrated, if parsimonious, actress-mother, Lavonne Byers delivers a deliciously stylized star performance, both delightful and grotesque, that personifies the human contradictions Chekhov understood so well. No wonder he was the paradigm for dramatists like Tennessee Williams and William Inge.

Fontbonne was wise to import mature guest artists like Meddows and Byers. But The Seagull is essentially a story of the thwarted dreams of the young. This is where the production stalls. The hopeless relationship between Konstantin and Nina never becomes empathetic. The two actors don't even seem to be in the same sphere. Nor have they received much help from their director. Although Cannon stages the first three acts of Chekhov's four-act play (one intermission) in a fluid manner that plays against the depths of despondency to which the story is capable of plummeting, he allows the climactic final act — and especially the final reunion of Nina and Konstantin — to drag out until it's almost too long to bear. Not a wise decision: Actors' shortcomings need to be protected, not exposed.

If you really want to know what that final scene is all about, best to attend The Nina Variations by Steven Dietz, which Fontbonne is staging in repertory with The Seagull. As he has shown in plays like Private Eyes, Dietz loves tinkering with form and structure. And he clearly loves Chekhov. Here Dietz has contrived a 75-minute homage, in which Nina and Konstantin act out 43 alternate endings. One senses that such a conceit might become tedious when the play is produced on its own, as it usually is. But here, directed by RFT theater critic Deanna Jent and staged in tandem with The Seagull, The Nina Variations becomes more than a mere chaser: It clarifies confusions about — and actually completes — the full-length play.

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.

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.