Thursday, February 12, 2009

A review of Bus Stop

ICCT - Full Disclosure: I’m a big fan of this play having done scene work for years and performed in a production many years ago. I say this because it’s important to know that I have a particular sensitivity to the obstacles to mounting a successful production of this play. Let’s face it… for everyone who has seen more than one production of this play the track record probably ain’t so great. For no obvious reason, it seems to be a play that amateur theaters and schools think would be easy to mount. It is actually very hard to do well. I know this because the production I was in was one of the bad ones. Thankfully, over the years since that production, I was able to learn what we had done wrong.

Onto the important point ... ICCT’s production of Bus Stop directed by Luis Sierra is one of the good ones, and in many places one of the great ones.

Bus Stop is easily misread as a play about throwing some two dimensional stereotypes together over night in a rural diner. The language and situations present a razor thin line between character and caricature which has only become more perilous as the years go on and it becomes more and more of a “period” piece. That’s not to say it’s dated in a way that makes it difficult to enjoy (quite the contrary), but simply that it exists in a very particular time and place in America and some of our mores and ethics have changed. This created some individual mine fields some actors had to navigate with varying degrees of success.

Rachel Korach Howell who plays Cherie (a chanteuse with a somewhat questionable past) was one of the most successful at this job of keeping the character human, interesting and fully three dimensional. Not only does she fill the stage with excitement the moment she enters, but she continues to infuse and inform the space with a great energy. She also brings in costume, make-up, physical carriage and voice that are slightly updated and modernized. She creates a version of Cherie that isn’t jarring or anachronistic, but allows her to avoid any comparison or confusion with the image of Cherie left by anyone who’s happened to see the film version.

Also closer to the end of the play I noticed something that may improve your enjoyment of her performance. During a moment when Bo the cowboy, who has a rather aggressive crush on Cherie, explains that he thought she was singing and winking just at him, it occurred to me that I felt the same. Ms. Howell has created a character with the skill (or herself has this skill) to create so many small moments, looks, expressions and reactions that are uncontrived and charming. They were subtle enough to not be distracting but almost felt like a reward for any audience member paying attention to the whole tableau on stage.

Speaking of Bo, Kehry Anson Lane brings an appropriate and delightful energy to this role. The role of Bo, a headstrong and wild cowboy who hasn’t spent enough time away from his ranch to learn some of the finer points of dealing with women, can easily become a boorish figure we never learn to understand or accept let alone feel for. Mr. Lane used his considerable skills to create a Bo we understood, sympathized with and came to feel affection for.

Next I want to mention the role of Virgil played by Jeremy Ping. Virgil is not surprisingly one of my favorite characters as he is most peoples’ favorite. A quiet friend and fellow cowboy, he is frequently the only voice of reason (albeit a very quiet and non verbose voice of reason) on the stage. I have had the pleasure of working with Mr. Ping in two shows (Wait until Dark and More Fun than Bowling) and once again he succeeds in bringing something unique yet appropriate and interesting to the role. Virgil is typically an all around nice guy, sweet and endearing and while this is also the trap of making him a two dimensional character, normally audiences don’t mind because of how likable he is. Mr. Ping found a way to add in layers of surliness and at times even a faint sense of menace (perhaps too strong a word) to his performance. This suddenly made the references to his role of surrogate parent to Bo make sense and seem more real than any other portrayal I have seen. He honestly seems to take Bo’s growth as a human being personally, and it made Virgil all the more touching a character.

Newcomer to ICCT and apparently to the stage itself Jana K. Stedman plays Elma Duckworth. She had the confidence and savvy to pull off some of the more awkward language in the play and fit in comfortably with a very experienced ensemble.

OK. The role of Dr. Lyman played by friend and colleague Chuck Dufano is the most difficult role to pull off and the closest to me personally. To some degree the role is the most maliciously contrived trap for an actor: a flamboyant and well-educated ham with a drinking problem and some other issues I’ll not spoil for the newcomers to the story. Finding a way to not play the character exclusively for laughs early in the play is almost essential for the drama and heartbreaking events of later acts to have the power and effect they require. Mr. Dufano is a wonderfully talented comic actor (a gift I envy) and there were a few moments in the first act I’m afraid he gave in to the temptations. None of this prevented me from enjoying the amazing moments later in the play as things come crashing down. However, I am not sure all of the opening night audience was able to make that transition themselves.

Another reason this role is so difficult for both actor and director is the subject matter and threat Dr Lyman brings to bear. When the play was written some of the verbal and physical clues were required to reveal Dr. Lymans’ “other issue”. With today’s sensitivity to the subject, I wonder if we would have found the progression more interesting and dreadful had it sneaked up on us rather than been so clearly indicated early on through line delivery and physical choices.

The more supporting roles of Grace and Carl (played by Kathy Maxey and Rip Russell) almost serve as bookends to the story. Personally I prefer to see these two actors in more dynamic and challenging roles, but the interaction between the two of them seemed to get stronger and more interesting in the second half of the play.

Also in a great supporting role is Jeff Emrich (yet another friend and colleague) as Sheriff Will Masters. The character provides the moral and legal compass for the play in many of the same ways Virgil provides the moral and philosophical compass. I always enjoy watching Jeff occupy a role and this was a very interesting role to which Jeff could bring his unique talents and skills to create a very different version of Will than I have seen before. There was no need for affected swagger or stereotypical machismo. You just knew that he was a man who knows right from wrong and won't let the line to be crossed.

As for the production as a whole I was impressed with the acting, lighting and blocking all which were used effectively to allow the story to tell itself. The set was nice, but I found myself questioning the distance between the main bank of audience seats and the stage. Understanding this is caused somewhat by the very nature of the space at ICCT, I still found the unused gulf of space to be an obstacle the actors had to overcome to engage me in the action and in some cases to be heard clearly. It’s rare I would suggest audience members choose to sit in one of sections of seats off to the extreme right or left of the playing space, but I wonder if this would have allowed me to be engaged sooner than I was.

All in all, Luis Sierra and his inordinately talented cast did a great job with a very difficult play. They created a rewarding experience by avoiding the obvious (and some not so obvious) pitfalls, finding fresh ways to present the characters, and quite frankly at times staying out of the way of a great story and letting it tell itself. Sometimes when producing a show that’s been done so many times there is a temptation to “spruce it up” and add too many distinct choices. I have the utmost respect for those who can resist their egos and present the story simply, wonderfully and effectively.

--Matthew Brewbaker

Matthew Brewbaker spent many years as artistic Director of Dreamwell Theatre and has directed and appeared in many Dreamwell Theatre and Iowa City Community Theatre productions. He studied experimental theater at New York University.

No comments: