Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Crimes Of The Heart (Fall: 1990)

So far in these URI Theater recollections, the one constant is the fantastic work of the design department in constructing gorgeous functional sets that worked perfectly in the very large Will Theater.

Also consistently excellent were the productions themselves, vastly different from one another but always challenging, always well executed.

We were all about to collectively lay an egg.

Beth Henley's "Crimes Of The Heart" is an intimate little drama/comedy that takes place entirely in the kitchen of a Southern farmhouse. It is really a wonderful little play, perhaps a tad overrated once you really explore it, but very well written and full of funny idiosyncratic characters.

I'll get to the failure of the Design Department later because it was the straw that broke the camel's back, but the camel (meaning the cast and the thrust of the direction)was already suffering from a pretty bad freakin' back before that last straw landed.

Kimber tended to cast by feel more than anything else and even if it didn't work out you could totally see why he'd done what he'd done. The sisters were to be played by a relatively new trio of actresses, new to the department anyway. One girl had never done a full length play before and she was to play the critical part of the sister who has murdered her abusive husband.

Her vibe was perfect. She had a lushness to her, a beauty that men would naturally project all kinds of desires onto but that she didn't inherently trust. She was a tomboy who had just become a hot young thing. But in this case, the personal journey of the actress kept her from embodying that sense of ease, that knowledge of what men could be manipulated into which some beautiful women possess without thinking about it at all.

Her oldest uptight sister was fantastic but the glamor girl back from a disastrous stint in California was similarly stumped by the complexity of the part. My good friend Alec played the laconic limping sexy cowboy and I played the hapless lawyer hired to represent the girl charged with murder.

Again, I hesitate to pat myself on the back or criticize other actors at all but the fact was that by this point both Alec and I had CARRIED mainstage productions. He didn't go on to pursue a career but he most certainly could have with his talent and flexibility. We were more experienced in general and more comfortable with Kimber in his sometimes difficult process.

Halfway through the rehearsal process I realized we were in trouble. Kimber would routinely cut rehearsal short out of frustration. He saw no point in beating his head against a wall. I respect that to a certain degree but I still feel like a few choice words might have righted the ship.

And then, just when we were struggling mightily to get a handle on the play, the kitchen set was unveiled to us for the first time.

I knew right away we were doomed.

The set itself was gorgeous. The interior of a Southern farmhouse in great detail. The floor of the stage had been transformed into a faded sparkling yellow linoleum, cabinets lined the walls with intricate woodwork, detail upon detail piled up.

But it was GIGANTIC. And wide. The farmhouse from the outside must have been almost a mansion. Not only was this a bit out of scale according to the modest history of the family involved but it meant that we would be playing intimate two person scenes across a kitchen table that from the audience seemed about as big as a piece of dollhouse furniture.

I vividly remember sitting across from the lovely young struggling actress during the show. There were hints of a good performance going on but I was the only one who would ever possibly see them. In order to compensate I had to thrust the entirety of my performance out to the crowd so that they would at least get 50% of the plot.

It was brutal. A similar thing was occurring in the scenes with Alec and the sister he was tentatively romancing. The compensation required of him tipped the balance of the scenes in such a way that it became the story of an injured cowboy trying to woo a woman instead of what it is supposed to be: the story of a heartbroken woman who isn't sure if she can open up one more time to the possibility of love.

Now, if you looked at the diagram of the set, if you looked at the sketches, you'd say to yourself, "That is perfect. Gorgeous. Real. Evocative." It is only when you put an actor on it, it is only when you see it to scale with human behavior directly on it, that you know it is totally wrong.

Most of the crowd that I came in with had moved on by now. A whole new crop of actors were arriving. I made good friends with that crew but something special had already gone out the door. Up to that point I'd been involved in magical experience after magical experience: "Hay Fever", "Drood", "The Molieres", "Biloxi Blues", "The Comedy Of Errors".

Up to that point I'd assumed it would always be like that. I see now how lucky that run was, how lucky we'd been to have such a talented group of actors, how perfectly the shows chosen had made use of their talent. I'd already made plans to spend a fifth year abroad so I knew my time in the department was coming to a close (little did I know that I would do one more show upon my return from Europe...).

The trajectory was like that of a rocket returning to liftoff. The spectacular explosion had not come at the end of the journey but rather the beginning. The matter reassembled slowly but surely, anti-climax being built into the process. I remember railing against this feeling, craving the excellence that had seemed so effortless my first three years on campus.

There would be no more magic shows. "Camelot" was announced as the winter musical...

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