Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Review of "Lookingglass Alice," at the Arden, published in the News of Delaware County, 5-23-07

Middle school composition teachers often employ the following assignment: Each member of a group of students writes a sentence that hopefully proceeds from what the last member of the group had written. This student in turn passes it on to another, who adds a sentence of their own. The pattern continues until the group finishes a full composition, presumably upon a single theme or topic. While some sentences leap off the page in their brilliance, the overall result is usually haphazard in order, with many mediocre and bad lines interspersed among the good.

The Chicago based Lookingglass Theatre Company (in association with the Actor’s Gymnasium) seems to have undertaken a similar task. At the Arden Theater, this group is currently touring “Lookingglass Alice,” a collaborative piece strung together by the designers, actors, stage managers, and crew, receiving multiple updates in each theater where it appears.

The result? Somewhat similar to the assignment mentioned above.

Based upon the Alice stories of Lewis Carroll, the production careens its way through a series of skits, dances, trapeze and robe acrobatics, lively uses of stage curtains draped horizontally, clever word play, and even a unicycle. Through all this lies the central story of Alice, who has plunged down the rabbit hole into the Red Queen ruled Wonderland, and must now work her way through a chessboard of lighted squares, each one representing a stage along the way to becoming a Queen herself. In her travels, she meets the lively characters from Carroll’s novels—The White Queen, for whom time runs backward; the ever-grinning Cheshire Cat, now a jazz parlor denizen; the irksome twins Tweedle-Dee and Dum; and of course the Mad Hatter, Humpty-Dumpty, and the habitually late White Rabbit.

As bizarre as the stories of Carroll may seem, no one could ever accuse them of incoherence. But this is the chief problem of Lookingglass’ Alice—not so much that director David Catlin didn’t focus the various scenes around a single idea, but that the entire production lacks a coherence of presentation. As a result, the evening appears stilted and sloppy, as some of the skits entertain cleverly (the tea party), others are boldly inventive (lawn crochet with hedgehogs), while others fall flat (most scenes with the Red Queen), or fail to work altogether (the ball scene).

Some of this stems from the company’s insistence on visual storytelling—where each of the skits looks wildly different from the next. The result, like Alice says to the caterpillar at one point, “is all just confusing changes,” as the different elements (a dance, a chair-throwing tea party, etc.) jumble together. This, coupled with randomly called out lighting and stage cues, only furthered the general sense of confusion that clouded the entire evening, making Alice less like a piece of theater, than a circus production—except here with no Ringmaster to guide the performance.

I truly enjoyed some of it—the two aerial plunges (though expected), still thrilled, and Lauren Hirte was quite endearing, and Anthony Flemming entertainingly sly, as Alice and the Cheshire Cat. But my moments of enjoyment came like the good sentences—infrequent and random—and certainly weren’t enough to carry an entire evening by themselves.

Review of "Doubt" at the Merriam Theater, published in the News of Delaware County

John Patrick Shanley’s recent play, “Doubt: A Parable,” is dramatically very powerful. An investigation filled with difficult choices and demanding paths drives the plot, this further heightened by the superb performances given at the Merriam Theater.

Unfortunately, it’s dramatically a cheat on a number of levels, none of which involves the lack of certainty achieved at the final curtain.

Set in a Catholic school in 1964, “Doubt” begins as a conflict over teaching styles, with the elder (and seemingly cynical) Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones) condescendingly warning the fresh-faced (and quite na├»ve) Sister James (Lisa Joyce) that “every easy choice hides within its consequences tomorrow.” However, Aloysius quickly shifts to her real concern—the well being of Donald Muller, their first Negro student—who has fallen into the protective care of Father Flynn, a pastor transferred through three parishes in five years.

Doubt, suspicion, and gossip dominate the play from here, as Flynn shows all the signs of guilt, but credibly defends himself at every turn—winning over James, and threatening Aloysius’ future. When the boy’s mother appears, she partially acquiesces to the alleged abuse. Already thinking her twelve year old son is gay, she only wants him to make it to June, so he can graduate to greater opportunity.

After a final verbal battle, Aloysius confirms her suspicions, while Flynn receives a transfer to a better parish, leaving both nuns in fear, distress, and doubt.

While this ending mimics what we now know often occurred, the play projects so many modern sensibilities onto its characters that it’s a wonder Shanley set Doubt in 1964 at all. Beyond the attitudes of the boy’s mother, the older Aloysius—who’s a staunch defender of everything else Catholic—nevertheless rails against the “power structure” dominated entirely by men. Instead of showing deference to Flynn, as she would have, she constantly challenges and insults his authority, and the priest, who forty years ago would have been beyond suspicion, now becomes guilty on mere shards of evidence. This last point, which drags the “constantly expecting Flynn’s guilt” audience throughout, is something Shanley only gets because of the recent scandals.

Like I said, it’s a cheat. More to the point, it’s a wish fulfillment that also fails. The play seems to say, “Oh, if only there had been this completely implacable Mother Superior to weed out these bad priests forty years ago!” And yet, because of the ending, it does so without completely saying that as well.

In this, the twist at the end fails too, as it only represents what happened, contradicting a line in Shanley’s own play, “that the truth doesn’t make for good parables.” But then what instruction emerges from a parable that basically argues, “even with the best people, guided by our best lights, things still go badly, the wicked go unpunished, and the good must suffer?” What moral should anyone take from such a tale?

Shanley managed to take the Tony and Pulitzer Awards for Best New Play. I’m not surprised; this is the sort of thing the people who make those decisions love: a powerful melodrama about a foreign and corrupt institution, presented through the scrim of modern sensibilities. Did Shanley deserve these awards? The play closes on Sister Aloysius crying, “I have doubts, I have doubts.” Yeah, I have them too.