Tag Archives: Ryan Rotella

Will Eno Makes Indecision an Honorable Way of Life

Review:  Middletown

By Perry Tannenbaum

“Daytime. Night-time. Enough. I get it.” Folks in Will Eno‘s Middletown may remind you at times of the stark simplicities of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. There are definitely absurdist and existential ideas running amok in Eno’s quaint American village, but there were other modernist ideas vying for our attention as actors in the nine-member ensemble swerved in and out of character, broke the fourth wall, or simply joined us in the audience as loudmouth spectators. Disbelief was not to be suspended for long in this amiably odd student-directed production by the Davidson College Theatre Department at the Barber Theatre. Nor was information very useful here, though the question of where we were was quickly addressed and muddled. Among the candidates instantly put forth by Google in Connecticut, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, or Rhode Island, Eno’s Middletown is none of the above – or possibly all of the above. “Middle” can certainly mean average in an Our Town way, or it can mean between in an existential way, at the crossroads between the past and future, the intersection where all times meet. Now.

cop

Eno’s playfulness wasn’t long in coming. His Cop broke the fourth wall in welcoming us as “Ladies and Gentlemen,” but the rest of the ensemble, planted in the audience, went about exhausting all the other possibilities of whom the Cop might be addressing – to such an epic length that we might have forgetten this catalogue was nothing more than a greeting. Then we came to the scene that most reminded me of Waiting for Godot. Sauntering out of the audience, the Cop encountered the Mechanic who was loitering in the middle of the stage. The interrogation that followed mixed silliness, slapstick, and brutality in a fashion that resembled the Beckett recipe. It also served to introduce us to the two subspecies that inhabit Middletown, those who have settled positions in life and those who are in transition, in between what they used to do and what might come next. Not surprisingly, Eno had us empathizing with his unsettled middle people. Indecision seemed to equal sanity in his universe.

Dressed as a mechanic, the Mechanic was no longer working as one. Perennially holding a beer bottle in his hand, Sam Giberga showed us that the Mechanic might have a buzz going, but not enough for Matt Hunter as the Cop to toss him in the slammer. The costume and the beer bottle also told us, as the evening rolled along, that despite the Mechanic’s search for a new direction in life, he wasn’t pursuing it at warp speed. Near the end of this bittersweet comedy, a parade of other actors – out of time or in a dream – came by and dressed the Mechanic in something emblematic of his or her profession. One of the nurses helped the Mechanic into a lab coat, the Astronaut contributed his helmet, the Librarian draped a book bag on his arm, and the Cop surrendered his walkie-talkie. All directions were possible in this fantasia.

In subsequent appearances, Hunter managed to convince me that the Cop’s unexpected, random brutality toward the Mechanic had been as much the result of boredom as anything else. Actions by the Librarian, the Astronaut, and the nurses underscored the point that people are basically going through the motions at their jobs. The people who interested Eno the most were those in search of motions through with to go. Futility abounds: in a scene with a tour guide and two tourists, it was hard to tell who was trying hardest to help the other out. None of them had much of a clue.

librarian

After the Cop chased the Mechanic off the stage, Mrs. Swanson arrived, a newcomer to Middletown. Hers was a more consequential scene, for she not only met the Librarian, who was eager to fill in Mrs. Swanson on the nebulosities that form Middletown’s history (Vickie Williams was a marvelously professional and preoccupied Librarian), she also met John Dodge, another listlessly searching townsperson. Not yet visibly pregnant, Mrs. Swanson was the embodiment of expectation, but her husband was never around to share her anxieties or her bliss. John, on the other hand, was perpetually downcast and lacking in initiative. Knowing Mrs. Swanson’s story and hearing that she was naming her unborn son John, John still didn’t act on his obvious affection for her.

woman

These two central roles were the best suited for collegiate actors, and both Savannah Deal and Ryan Rotella were superb. Only Deal was truly age-appropriate last year when the two appeared in Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice. Here, their unaffected styles made their scene work even more satisfyingly. Rotella’s hangdog approach to John gave the untethered man a cuddly, pathetic appeal, while Deal’s slight cheerfulness always seemed undercut by her disorientation, uncertainty, and profound loneliness. The common bond that united both subspecies of Middletowners, both the shiftless and the settled, was the loneliness that made Mrs. Swanson and John appear to be natural soulmates.

For this production, Barber Theatre was configured in stadium style, half the audience facing the other half with the stage in the middle. Scenic designer Neil Reda didn’t often have much to show us in the middle, but for Act I, he set up two colorful pairs of housefronts facing each other from opposite ends of the stage, about the size of a changing cabin you might rent at the beach. As the 10-minute intermission ended, ensemble members planted themselves at both sides of the house to discuss what they – as audience members – saw in Act I. It wasn’t a particularly enlightening discussion, of course, digressing into a guy on my side of the theatre marveling at the memory of one of the women on the other side. A latter-day Pirandello prank, perhaps?

During the interval, however, Reda’s two set pieces were swiveled around, revealing yet another aspect of what Middletown might be. On the other side of the exterior doors we saw in Act I, there were now two hospital rooms, one for Mrs. Swanson and one for John. In one room, there was an impending birth, while on John’s side, there just might be an impending death. Eno gives us a grimly humorous takeaway here: if you’re thinking about suicide and not absolutely sure you won’t have regrets, use a clean knife to better ensure your recovery.

Of course, the bigger takeaway was the one laid out before the audience. Middletown is that seemingly large space between birth and death, the entirety of our awareness. One of the ensemble members comes onstage to plant a little tree there, but it is whisked away before the important action resumes.

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Orpheus Isn’t Calling the Tunes in Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice,” Told for Once from a Feminist Perspective

By Perry Tannenbaum

February 17, 2016, Charlotte, NC – The story of Orpheus and Eurydice didn’t start off as a particularly misogynistic myth. When Vergil told their story, he said it was the queen of the Underworld, Persephone, who decreed the conditions under which Eurydice was to be returned to life: that she follow behind Orpheus on the trek back to the living and that Orpheus not look back on his wife until they reached the light. After all of his musical exploits; charming the guardians, inhabitants, and rulers of the Underworld; it’s Orpheus who causes Eurydice’s second death by looking back – without the slightest provocation from her. Ovid’s subsequent retelling is even more benign, for he never states whether it was Pluto or Persephone who imposed the conditions that Orpheus violated.

In the annals of opera, the story has a hallowed place, sparking the first masterworks by Monteverdi (1607) and Gluck (1762). It’s only in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice where we might find some truly cringe-worthy traces of misogyny. Not knowing the conditions of her salvation, Euridice insists upon the two things Orpheus cannot do – look back or explain – with excruciating persistence until he gives in. But after that catastrophe, Orpheus grieves so eloquently that Eurydice is revived for a second time by the God of Love and all ends happily. So why did playwright Sarah Ruhl decide to drastically revise the myth in Eurydice, her 2003 play now at the Cunningham Theatre Center on the Davidson College campus? If the impulse is feminist, it’s likely because Ruhl wished to tell the story from Eurydice’s perspective for once.

Nor is Ruhl’s tone angry, for there is plenty of whimsy in her updates and alterations. Orpheus now plays a violin instead of plucking a lyre, and Eurydice calls more of the tunes. Taking a couple of breaks from her wedding celebration, she encounters a Nasty Interesting Man who lures her with the promise of something important – a letter sent to her from the Underworld by her dead father. Rather than dying from a snakebite as she flees a lecherous pursuer, the mod Eurydice dies in the act of recovering what belongs to her, an intrepid action rather than a fainthearted one. This Davidson College Theatre Department effort, student directed by Matthew Schlerf, remains timely without any militant edges.

Scenic designer Chris Timmons brilliantly utilizes the Barber Theatre stage, dividing the action into three distinctive levels. Floor level will be the Underworld, but we begin on a broad platform high above that, where Orpheus proposes and the nuptials are celebrated. Further above, a permanent upstage stairway to the studio’s catwalk arches over the Nasty Man’s lair, offering the highest point possible for Eurydice’s fatal plunge. Death is a downer, to be sure, but Eurydice certainly isn’t chastened or humbled by her fall. Impervious to the indignity of the shower that greets her at the gateway – she has come prepared with a handy umbrella – Eurydice expects to be shown to her living quarters even though a chorus of stones has told her that there aren’t any. Not to worry, Eurydice’s father dutifully shows up to pick up her empty suitcase, guide her to her room, and begin teaching her all that she forgot in the River Lethe. I can’t say how Dad is supposed to build Eurydice’s room in Ruhl’s script, but here he weaves his magic with a rainbow-colored ball of twine threaded through eyelets on the floor and the stage-left wall, forming a gleaming cat’s cradle.

By introducing Eurydice’s father into the mythic mix, Ruhl gives her heroine a reason to linger down below and feel some ambivalence about obediently following in Orpheus’s wake. On the other hand, Dad’s pre-nup letter to his daughter becomes a precedent after her untimely death, for Orpheus dispatches a letter to his vanished beloved, relying on the worms for delivery – and Eurydice has no less confidence that what worked for her dad will work for her. The eternal comfort of this system of family correspondence is spoiled by just one thing: the Lord of the Underworld, who reeks of the Nasty Man’s unsavoriness (they’re played by the same actor), wants to make Eurydice his bride. One more reason to go with Orpheus when he finally comes knocking.

Schlerf casts judiciously, using players who are mostly sophomores but not younger. As the lovebirds, senior Cy Ferguson as Orpheus and sophomore Savannah Deal in the title role pair up magnificently. He’s good-hearted, undoubtedly vulnerable, and the perfect antithesis of his nasty rivals. Deal is up to the spoiled, imperious figure she cuts entering the Underworld, but we never catch her trying to come across any older than she is. This is a natural Eurydice, not a flawless one. That approach may not be as ideal for Collin Epstein as Father or Ryan Rotella as the nasties above and below ground. Costumes by Carolyn Bryan help Epstein as Dad and Rotella as the Godfather-like Nasty put on a few years perhaps. But both speak as naturally as Deal does, a welcome change if you’ve ever been irritated by young actors straining to look older with the aid of makeup, hair coloring, or false beards. Once we adjourn to the Underworld, Rotella is purposely portrayed as childish when he appears as Lord of this domain, wearing a dopey beanie and pedaling a trike. And if this isn’t a punitive, hellfire Underworld, why can’t Dad be any age he likes while spending eternity there? Ruhl mischievously makes up her own rules as she spins her old yarn, twisting it enough to make it new and genially provocative. There’s even a beguiling touch of mystery when we reach the ending.

© 2016 CVNC