10X10 Upstreet, plays by Suzanne Bradbeer, Ron Burch, John Cariani, Megan Dieterle, David MacGregor, Scott McCarrey, James McLindon, Gwendolyn Rice, Lynn Rosen, Jodi Rothe. Directed by Julianne Boyd, Kristen van Ginhoven, Christopher Innvar.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I don’t have to fill your pauses."
Great actors don’t have to have famous names or public personalities that draw attention to themselves. We often mis-identify those people in the celebrity media as "great actors," but we’re most often mistaken, shaken by the force of their inevitable visibility. Great actors are people like Peggy Pharr Wilson and Robert Zukerman. Nowhere is that made clearer than in a festival of short plays. In just a few minutes these two undoubtedly "great" actors transform themselves into different people and present us with complete and fulfilled characters. It isn’t that they do over their hair and makeup to become something different; no, it is simply that they can get inside the human beings they portray and make them absolute and genuine through their use of voice, body and heart.
Luckily these two fine actors, great actors, are on stage in Barrington Stage Company’s third edition of its 10 by 10 festival of new plays. Wilson is in four of the plays as is Zukerman. She plays a woman whose unstoppable chatter maddens a man in mourning, a beggarwoman who roves and wanders and is a first-class romantic, a woman fearing early onset Alzheimers, and a narrator whose belief in the fiction she is compelled to present knows no obstacles. He plays the hapless father of a bewildering son, a cranky octogenarian who won’t celebrate a faux version of an important holiday, a beggar gentleman whose compulsion to create reality is subverted by a sudden touch of amour, and a witch whose wrath knows no bounds.
At no time in the plays they inhabit do we find any glimmer of another character. Each time they appear it is as if they are appearing for the first time. That is great acting and it should be a lesson for the other four members of this acting company who do good, but not great, work although each has moments of absolute brilliance. What they don’t have is the honest-to-God wondrous talents of their elders. At least not yet.
The best of the younger four are Dina Thomas and Matt Neely. Thomas plays a possessed twelve year old with passion and a young wife whose sudden boredom turns to madness with a fervor that is wonderful. She also tackles a fairy-tale heroine with gusto and the role of a make-up artist for whom art has taken a nasty turn with flair. Neely gets off to a slow start as a confused parent, becomes a disgruntled employer, an inconsolable medic and a mis-firing archer with each role better played than the last one. It is hard to know why two such talented actors in such different roles manage to never leave themselves in the background, but are instead always actors acting roles. They are always good, but it is hard, even two hours later as I write this, to recall what some of those roles were although the actors themselves are always visible in them.
Finishing out the cast are Emily Kunkel who is always the same and John Zdrojeski whose wide mouth makes his roles indistinguishable even though his title role, "Sweetheart Roland," is 180 degrees different from his role in the play that precedes this one, a young husband threatened by his crazed wife. These two are his best roles and he does manage to differentiate them in tone and that was wonderful, but the real difference here is in the writing and the direction, not so much in the actor’s presentation. He is a genuine talent and hopefully time will allow him to grow into the arena that Zukerman now owns.
As for the plays themselves, Barrington Stage Company has chosen only winners this year. Ron Burch’s play "The Possethsion" which opens the first half of the evening is a deliciously dark comedy with twists and turns that delight. Parents deal with the possession of their child by a demon named Seth and watch as their daughter Megan does what she needs to do to regain control. Suzanne Bradbeer’s piece, "Man the Torpedoes" gives us two well conceived and well revealed characters in a classic struggle for dominance. The manipulative Anita and the acrid Henry comes to terms as only they can and the outcome, if a tad predictable, is well written and well played. Julianne Boyd directed both of these with an eye to the odd subtleties that broad comedy and heartfelt sadness can compel.
"I Love You" by Lynn Rosen is a difficult play as a father and son try to find some peace in their difficult, not to say torturous, relationship. Also directed by Boyd, this play leaves you thinking about such things as honesty, understanding and the ability to listen and not just hear. Kristen van Ginhoven directed Jodi Rothe’s "The Prompter", an odd sketch about an actress and her friend, a make-up artist, at odds during a professional make-over designed to create an image for an audition. One of the more physical plays in the set, this script is about listening and grasping the subtleties of human interaction. Rothe’s two women each have a personal agenda and neither gets complete satisfaction, although both realize objectives here. The use of an unusual Picasso painting as a topic of conversation helps sustain the poignancy of the situation.
David MacGregor’s "New Year’s Eve" directed by Christopher Innvar ends the first half with a play that opens up issues of aging and honesty and the unlikely friendships that span generations. It’s an excellent closing play with Emily Kunkel’s best performance.
The second half begins with van Ginhoven’s well-realized "Homeless Romantic" by Scott McCarrey, a play that enchants as it depicts two people whose love affair has no future but oh, what a past. The director follows this one with Megan Dieterle’s "Debridement" in which two people with short-lived marriages come together in a tragic way. Not a romance per se, it imparts a romantic sensibility to tragic circumstances and does so slowly and carefully. This is an excellent short play, distancing and compelling at the same time.
Gwendolyn Rice’s "Lost and Found" directed by Innvar, is a monologue of a play in which its sole character psychologically unravels to the point of despair only to find renewed hope in the future through an accident of placement. It is helped by the performance of Wilson. "Uh-Oh" by John Cariani (an actor who has also written a wonderful theatrical evening that I have enjoyed many times entitled "Almost, Maine") is a silly and wonderful dark comedy thriller that takes the audience through the up and down mood-swings of its female character to a nearly devastating final scene in which the male of the species steals the scene with his wild reaction to the situation in which he finds himself.
Closing the presentation is a fairytale by James McLindon, "Sweetheart Roland" with the entire company engaged as wondrous characters including a narrator who substitutes for a missing actress (with a surprise search for her) and a never-ending happy ending, at least for some. This is not to be missed.
Clever lighting by Robert Brown, excellent sound design by Brad Berridge, costumes coordinated by Kathy Kearns and scenic elements coordinated by Brian Melcher all help to make this a very delightful two hours of theater. It warms the cockles of the heart in mid-winter to have dreams of the young played out on an accessible stage in the heart of the Berkshires.
Robert Zukerman and Peggy Pharr Wilson; photo Kevin Sprague
Matt Neely, Dina Thomas, Emily Kunkel; photo: Kevin Sprague
Dina Thomas and John Zdrojeski; photo: Kevin Sprague
10x10 Upstreet plays on the St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center located at 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA through March 2. For information and tickets call the Barrington Stage Company box office at 413-236-8888.