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Theatre Review (LA): Vigil by Morris Panych

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Vigil is a very quirky play about death and then life. Written and directed by Morris Panych, it is full of one-liners and short scenes which sometimes consist of just a couple of lines. There are only two actors, in this case Olympia Dukakis and Marco Barricelli. Neither of these actors seems perfect for their parts, at least at first glance, but by the end I bought them in the roles. This acceptance is partly due to excellent playwriting but also to the cumulate skills of the actors, each stretching beyond his or her customary limits.

The actors in question are both familiar to me. Olympia was a teacher of mine at N.Y.U. School of The Arts. I first saw her perform in a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where she played Nurse Ratched, a nasty piece of work if there ever was one. A friend of mine who was the stage manager quoted her as saying, “I just want to wear a silly hat and smoke a cigar.” In Vigil she plays an almost wordless part, depending on a smile, quizzical looks, a funny hat, and a cigarette (not a cigar but close enough). She is a total delight, not the stern taskmaster I remember as a teacher. She is sweet, funny, poignant, and slightly crazy.

Marco Barricelli I have known through his work for many years. He was a leading actor at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where he played many heroic roles. Now he is the Artistic Director of the Santa Cruz Shakespeare Festival. In Vigil he plays a nasty, bitter soul, full of self-loathing and a caustic sense of humor about life. It is a tribute to his incredible skill as an actor that he is able to hold his own with Ms. Dukakis (mugging in a good sense) and to keep the dialogue varied and paced. I am sure that director Panych had his hands full.

The play itself is quite odd. In one scene Barricelli’s character says, “Let’s not talk about anything depressing,” and then says, “Do you want to be cremated?” You see, Kemp (Barricelli) has come to be with his aunt Grace in her final hours and wants her to get on with it. He doesn’t like her and feels she abandoned him in his youth even though he played the accordion for her when she visited. There is a trick at the end that turns everything on its head but the two end up no longer alone, but with a new caring friend.

Vigil may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I sure had a good time. Nothing like a dose of black humor to make you feel good.

Vigil plays at the Mark Taper Forum until Dec. 18.

Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

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