During A Voluminous Evening of Brevity, the small Red Room Theatre on East 4th Street expands and expands like a corridor in Willy Wonka's factory to accommodate audience, cast, crew and four distinct playwrights with all their characters, histories,and immense personas in tow. It's amazing that one theatre can fit so large an idea.
With A Voluminous Evening of Brevity, the Dysfunctional Theatre Classics , which has been "holding theatre hostage since 1997, brings together the work from a gang of four writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Susan Glaspell, W. B. Yeats, and Edna St. Vincent Millay – each writer unique and each with cultural impact. The sparse stage contains little but a window, a stark metaphor for the outlook of the author and the inward gaze of the audience.
The four writers initially do not seem to have much in common but after a short 80 minutes spent with their characters, you begin to realize that it's not the characters themselves or their stories that are the organic link between the four one-acts – it is the authors' relationships to their characters that is the connection. Each one act contains its author as if that author is sitting, looking in the window at his or her creation.
This idea is overtly established in the first play – F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Pink and Porcelain," directed by Justin Plowman. Rob Brown is Mr. Fitzgerald himself, introducing his one-act to the audience, reading the stage directions. In describing the scene, he presents a frieze decorating the walls of a bathroom in great detail: "The frieze is not in the plot, but frankly it fascinates me. I could continue indefinitely, but I am distracted by one of the two objects in the room – a blue porcelain bath-tub." The artistic decision to have Fitzgerald appear within the context of his own play sets the stage for the whole evening: the author within the context of his or her work.
Mr. Brown has one of the more successful performances of the evening – a night when many actors are portraying more than one character. Nicole Lee Aiossa (below) as Julie Marvis, the girl in the bathtub that "so distracts" the playwright has a great comic presence and is obviously enjoying the role, but she uses a caricaturing voice – as flapper and nothing else.
Then, for something completely different, and in defiance to Julie's announcement that she prefers literature that is "not too ancient or complicated or depressing," the program moves into W. B. Yeats' "Purgatory" which is ancient, complicated and depressing. It's a bit of a shock, really, and the production shows great courage in making that jump.
As much as Fitzgerald is part of "Porcelain and Pink," (even if he wasn't on stage finishing off bottle after bottle of wine,) Yeats is hovering over his "Purgatory," a play which seems quite experimental on its surface but resonates with all the classic themes that Yeats wrestled with both in drama and in his archetypal poetry.
Heavy on the metaphor for Ireland's past, present and hopeless future, "Purgatory" is also influenced by the bare images of Noh drama. The lone window from the prior one-act now symbolizes the Great Houses of old Ireland and the "great people who used to live and die in those houses." An old man (Tom O'Connor) and his son (Greg Engbrecht) stop by the ruins of the house and the old man tells his dismal story: his parents used to live there in wealth and comfort, but both came to a miserable end. No surprise here – this is an Irish drama, after all. In a lyrical performance by Mr. O'Connor, we see that he too is in a hell of his own making.
Directed by Peter Schuyler, "Purgatory" was rushed. Perhaps because there were more plays to be staged in the evening, but atmosphere and meaning were lost in the fast pace of the orchestration. The desperate action of the father toward the son in order to eradicate his past needs to be rooted in something tangible. In keeping with Yeats' debt to Noh drama, I have seen music, both Japanese and Irish, used to great effect in producing "Purgatory," to augment what can be a difficult piece. At the very least, an oppressive silence can indicate the melancholy that motivates the father.
The next one-act, "Two Slatterns and A King" was a breath of comic air after the heavy lifting of "Purgatory." Directed by Rob Brown (who was a busy man all evening), "Two Slatterns" seems more performance poetry than a dramatic play, but it was delightful. A king (the aptly named Kurt Kingsley) is in search for a wife. For reasons not yet apparent, we know she must be a good housekeeper. Two women, one tidy (Amy Overman) and one a slob (Amy Beth Sherman) change personas in a brief, circumstantial turn of events, and it affects their lives forever. You can guess which one becomes the wife of the king. Through the one-act, over the voice of Chance (the engaging Peter Schuyler) you can hear the strong voice of the poet calling for feminine revolt in the circumstance of marriage and the happiness of the tidy woman who has escaped marriage.
"Trifles" by Pulitzer-prize winning Susan Glaspell was the only play I wasn't familiar with, and after seeing it, I was ashamed of my shortcoming. A nice twisty crime drama, "Trifles," despite its name, is not inconsequential. Like "Two Slatterns and A King," "Trifles" too had strong feminist stance. Directed by Amy Overman, the play was a fitting follow-up to the Millay's play, however, the cast seemed a bit worn after the strain of the four play marathon. Fortunately Jennifer Gill (below right) as Mrs. Peters and Theresa Unfried (below – Mrs. Hale) deliver substance. The two women, cleaning up a neighbor's house after she has been accused of murder, have a quiet epiphany – a glimpse into the tragic life of someone who lived down the road in quiet misery for years. The window into a woman's distress, not the off-stage homicide, shows the true crime.
It was a night of one-acts, the work of two Pulitzer winners, a Nobel winner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald who won no prestigious prizes but may have received the best award of all – the embodiment of a decade. I question the intrinsic position of 'Purgatory' within the other plays, but the evening as a whole is a joyous reminder of what the one-act is, a declarative statement from the playwright.
A Voluminous Night of Brevity runs through March 31 at the Red Room Theatre.