Saturday, February 9, 2013

Trestle's Engines Lack Steam

By James E. Trainor III
Photos by Elisabeth Ross

Brad Quinn as Chas and Logan Natvig as Dalton.
Iowa City - Dalton Chance has been flirting with Pace Cregan. Or maybe he's just been flirting with death. Pace isn't the kind of girl you bring home to mother. She spits, she swears, she talks of disturbing topics. And she's had Dalton down by the train tracks rehearsing for a date with destiny that will change him forever.

The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek is Naomi Wallace's Depression-era tale of two teens and their struggle to assert some sort of identity in a hopeless world. At the same time, it explores the effects of economic downturn on the older characters. Dreamwell's production, directed by Chuck Dufano, opened at the Universalist Unitarian Society this weekend.

As the plot, which is somewhat nonlinear, develops, we learn that Dalton (Logan Natvig) is accused of killing Pace (Adeara-Jean Maurice). We learn that Chas (Brad Quinn), Dalton's jailer, had a son who had been captivated -- and killed -- by Pace's obsessions with the train that crosses the trestle at Pope Lick Creek. Pace was training Dalton to run the train. She was also teaching him about love, and how being human means coming to terms with the urgent need to see and be seen by others. As Pace's bizarre story unfolds, Dalton opens up about her philosophy that shattered his world, and how he can never be put back together the same way again.

It's a play of shadows and mirrors, and the story of Dalton's parents, Gin (Meg Dobbs) and Dray (Steven Polchert) mirrors his own. They were once teenagers in love in the same dead-end town, with the same desperation to overcome inertia and become something completely different. But Dray has been laid off and Gin will be any day now, and they're turning out to be nothing but empty. Gin wants to save their relationship, but Dray is completely broken. The subplot showcases Wallace's unabashedly socialist politics and, at the same time, gives us an idea of where Dalton and Pace might have gone.

Trestle's actors are energetic and committed, but the direction seems to lack nuance. Wallace's writing is evocative and expressionistic, and there are phrases and images that a director (and actors) needs to let linger. Often -- especially in the earlier scenes -- the company barrels through important moments, neglecting to let the rhythm or the play speak for itself, sometimes even ignoring the punctuation. Often an actor will ignore the actions of another and move right onto the next line without acknowledging his/her scene partner, or simply fail to speak from the heart. The result turns what is written as something of a Pinteresque odyssey of alienated youth into a much more predictable, naturalistic piece that has a fraction of the potential agony and beauty. This is not to say that the production has no redeeming moments, but the first half of Trestle feels like a train rushing quickly off of its tracks, only occasionally rattling back on.

Steven Polchert as Dray and Meg Dobbs as Gin.
Of course, the language itself is only half the reason Wallace's plays are so striking. Many of the most beautiful moments in Trestle are overtly physical, and these Dreamwell gets right. A jailer "shares" his apple by throwing chunks of it on his sleeping charge. A couple tosses a plate back and forth because they dare not touch each other directly. A simple feather pillow is an accusation of neglect and at the same time a symbol of hope. The most effective of these moments comes when Dalton has broken a ceramic cup, to prove it's not only a cup -- it's also a knife. The ghost of Pace ends this scene by picking up the shard, wryly quipping "There's your cup, kid. Drink from it," while she slides it across the stage. This gesture triggers a light change and the entrance of Dray, who is suddenly dancing and singing an old song. One is reminded of the cult television show Twin Peaks, where a least one character spontaneously dances at the most inappropriate times. It's an excellent example of Wallace's nearly surreal use of imagery, and Dufano pulls it off flawlessly. The production has a very interesting visual tone, and it only stumbles noticeably in two places: we don't get to see the shadow puppets that are mentioned again and again -- why aren't they projected onto the stage walls? -- and the last scene, where Pace climbs the Trestle, seems a bit awkward, though perhaps this is simply because there aren't a lot of levels to play with at the UU.

The acting is solid, though at times it seems it could use some stronger direction. Polchert in particular is very striking; his physical presentation of Dray is dark and imposing without overdoing it. Though Dray is a withdrawn character at first, Polchert makes an effort to connect with the other actors, and he seems to be the most comfortable with the rhythm of the language. Quinn is intriguing as Chas, especially when he makes strange shapes with his body to mock the other prisoners. His use of language (he does most of the talking in his scenes with the stoic Dalton) is layered, though he does tend to get off on yelling jags and miss some of the subtler ironies of the text. Dobbs has a real presence as Gin, and is a responsive scene partner, but there seems to be a fire missing from her performance. One wants to see flashes of the unique, bold girl Gin once was -- as she describes herself to Dalton and Dray -- on stage in front of us. As is, Maurice's performance of Pace gives us more insight into Gin's past than Dobbs' scenes.

Adeara-Jean Maurice as Pace and
Logan Natvig as Dalton.
Maruice is clearly a skilled actor, as is Natvig, but both seem miscast (or at least misdirected) in this show. This is, of course, a constant challenge for a community theatre: how to find actors who seem young enough to play teens but are mature enough to deal with the content? The awkwardness, though, in having young leads with such a large age discrepancy really hurts the play. The sexual energy is taken right out of the scenes, even the scenes where the sexual energy is the center -- and it leaves a lot of it feeling dry and lifeless. They have moments where there is some passion or tenderness, but for the most part, it seems Maurice is hesitating from following through viscerally on Pace's character arc, which is essentially to dominate and ultimately break Dalton. Her characterization is certainly unique and memorable, and her physical and vocal work is really interesting, but there's a whole lot of hesitancy and caution that doesn't fit the bold, fiery Pace Cregan.

Natvig is a bit more comfortable in his skin, perhaps because his character is a bit more down-to-earth and less expressionistic than the others. After all, it's Dalton who is the ingenue in Wallace's dark world of small-town desperation, and the only one who, once awakened to it, hasn't resigned himself to it in some way. His quiet, cautious poise and his believable reactions to the others tell Dalton's story quite clearly, and on his own and with Quinn, he's excellent. But whether it's the direction or the age discrepancy, the Pace/Dalton scenes lack that Naomi Wallace quality of surreal sexuality, and the play as a whole suffers for it.

Though this production is a bit uneven, Trestle is a very bold script and it's exciting that Dreamwell's doing it. This reviewer was a bit disenchanted with some of the stylistic choices, but I encourage you to see for yourself if the production holds up, especially if you've never treated yourself to a Naomi Wallace play before. The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek plays again tonight (February 9) and February 15-16 at the Unitarian Universalist Society at 10 South Gilbert St in Iowa City. More information here.

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