ACT Theatre; ends Sun., Nov. 14
The trouble with Fiction is that it isn't—fiction, that is. Oh, playwright/director Steven Dietz made most of it up, I assume, but I mean it isn't a novel, it's a play. Yet every clever, crafted line of dialogue that might read great on the page sounds like a clever, crafted line of dialogue that might read great on the page. The tale turns intriguingly, yet the words coming out of everybody's mouths never resemble the way people talk if they don't have chapter headings neatly separating the important episodes in their lives.
Maybe this is what Dietz intended. The two main characters of this three-person play are, in fact—or I guess I should say, in fiction—writers. They're fiction writers. Whatever. Michael (John Procaccino) and Linda Waterman (Suzanne Bouchard) are married authors, and Dietz is using their adroitness for literary imagination as a metaphor to examine the human propensity toward more useful fabrications. The difference between a lie and the truth can be less certain for anyone who recognizes that the one very often informs the other; writers, in particular, thrive on that dubious relationship.
Everybody in Fiction, unfortunately, would sound better in fiction; they're far too prone to launching into ornate reflections that never have the ease of spoken conversation. And they are very into words. When the Watermans find out that Linda has three weeks to live—"like something out of Nabokov," she says—Linda tells Michael that she wants to read his voluminous diaries before she dies. He's a little vain, apparently—"in a truly Tom Wolfe–ian sort of way," we're told—so, after some hedging, he agrees. (If people really talked like the Watermans, life would be very exhausting, in a War and Peace kind of way, if you ask me.) So, Linda reads Michael's diaries and discovers his affair with Abby (Emily Cedergreen), a younger woman he met at a writer's colony, and as the play jumps back and forth in time, the line between what's real and what has a little help from desperate invention continues to blur.
Great idea, but Dietz boxes himself into a corner with bookishness. He gets in some nice licks at the tormented hubris of writers—"No matter what they say, writers don't want to write," Michael tells Emily. "They just want to be writers"—though whenever he tries to break out of wry, pensive reflectiveness and get anyone to come across as colloquial, it's embarrassingly unconvincing. Cedergreen, an attractive actor forced to play an argumentative idea more than a role, has to stand around fuming while Procaccino (doing that fidgety Alan Alda thing that drives me up the wall) seduces her with badinage that wouldn't work on the most predisposed of vixens. Miscast Bouchard, as one of those spirited, sharp-tongued women who always seem to come down with incurable diseases, is made to get up and perform a few lines of Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart" during a casual debate over pop songs. She understandably looks as though she'd rather be anyplace else (warm, poised Bouchard is certainly someone you'd mourn in death, but foul-mouthed force of life is a little beyond her).
Dietz is all plot and not enough flesh and blood here. We don't really know why Michael wouldn't just lie his way out of letting Linda at his diaries—or why he'd even bother with the hostile Abby, for that matter—outside of such things better serving the story at hand. The show is efficient but not particularly theatrical: Its episodes piece together into a unified whole, like in a book, and there's a rather cunning plot twist three-quarters of the way through, like in a book; and if this were all a book, I'd tell you to enjoy it for the ride despite the bumps. But it's not. So I won't. STEVE WIECKING
As You Like It
Center House Theatre; ends Sun., Nov. 14
Artistic Director Stephanie Shine says her As You Like It is inspired by a walk she took around her grandparents' gravesites in Ireland. That may be, but in fact, it has to be the least grave production I've ever seen, and it's too impatient to walk. It's peppy and quick-stepping, like the quip-a-minute badinage in the Thin Man flicks.
As the cross-dressing star of the piece, Rosalind, Deborah Fialkow reminds me of a less butch version of the aviator Suzanne Bouchard played in the Rep's Misalliance—long, lean, and lithe, poised to pounce, sexily feminine yet curvelessly mannish. Which makes it all the easier for her to dress up as a man and slip into the Forest of Arden to educate her intended in the proper way to court her.
Paul Morgan Stetler plays Rosalind's erotic quarry Orlando like a big, dim galoot. He's not bad, but he's no match for Fialkow's more vivid stage presence. Neither is the promising Susan McIntyre, who, as Rosalind's best friend, Celia, is affecting but a bit hesitant. Shine lessens her effect by forcing her to keep up with Fialkow's rat-a-tat delivery. And with Rosalind talking so damn fast, it's tough to care about her, or catch the complex arguments she makes about ideal and real love. More than most Shakespeare plays, this one depends on the audience's awareness of literary romantic and pastoral clichés, and the velocity of Shine's production mooshes everything together: fake shepherd and real shepherd, urbanite and arcadian blur into a blob, like a mob fistfighting in a cartoon.
This does give the production a cartoonish color and energy, which is good. It's never boring. But it's seldom moving. The sourpuss urban put-downs of the Touchstone (the excellent Daniel J. Chercover) come off stronger than the worldly idealism Shakespeare's arguing for, because the romance is reduced to rapid pratfall clowning. Also, the production's bright athleticism obscures the crucial shadow of death. When Todd Jefferson Moore nicely delivers Jaques' "Ages of Man" speech, a statement that life boils down to bones, it lacks force because this production doesn't take death seriously. Shakespeare refutes Jaques' nihilism with the touching sight of Orlando walking in carrying old Adam (the aptly named but pallid William Bone). The idea: A man alone winds up a skeleton, but love and human connection keep the grave at bay. The emotion just doesn't register here. And while Shine tries a cool thing—Jaques eerily fades backward into the dark at the end of the Ages speech, as though being lowered into the ground—it doesn't quite work because, in a play played mostly for laughs, his true creepiness never quite comes out.
John Kirschenbaum's forest of hanging fabric works fine, Ron Erickson's costumes are lovely, and Sean Patrick Taylor's music trills with a pretty English-folk lilt. Fialkow's Rosalind is brisk and bracing, but when she says, "Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them," she doesn't seem to be listening to herself. For a production inspired by a cemetery, it's remarkably unhaunted. TIM APPELO
Dream of a Ridiculous Man
Chamber Theater; ends Sat., Nov. 13
The folks at Akropolis Performance Lab—which, so far as I can tell, consists of Jennifer and Joseph Lavy, as well as associate Eric Mayer, who together adapted, conceived, and star in this strange work—obviously have a firm grasp on the rich metaphysics of Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It's impossible to fault the troupe's portrayal of the major themes anchoring Dostoyevsky's writing, in itself no small feat for a play that clocks in at just short of 90 minutes. Shame, pride, nihilism, religious skepticism, spiritual masochism, romantic obsession, debasement, illness, the afterlife—all represented here, all in a manner that evinces a deep commitment to the artistic concerns that drove the man Vladimir Nabokov called a hack and most everyone else considers one of the greatest novelists in the history of literature. Anyone at all familiar with Dostoyevsky's writing beyond the college-required Crime and Punishment will feel endless shocks of recognition during the unfolding of this Dream; you may also feel confusion, frustration and/or admiration, depending entirely on how you feel about the method behind Akropolis' dramatic madness.
The play, which appears to borrow from the whole of Dostoyevsky's oeuvre, almost completely forsakes plot, opting instead to create a dreamscape that touches repeatedly on the profound spiritual themes that compelled the writer. Reflecting Dostoyevsky's obsession with identity, psychology, and especially issues of doubleness, the trio of actors moves fluidly among a stock of archetypal characters, shedding skins as though each portrayal were simply the embodiment of an idea. Such blending and mirroring is achieved primarily through movement; the play makes excellent use of the vast stage space, utilizing elements of dance and performance art to represent the psychic symbolism and religious iconography of the writer's work. The actors run, sing, dance, collide, intertwine, contort, flagellate, and even hang themselves in a sort of balletic mimicry of psychological disintegration.
Among so many other things, Dostoyevsky was a potboiler, a writer of compulsively twisted melodramas with epic sweep, and anyone seeking a discernible narrative with the usual ballast of story and character will be severely disappointed. Dream is interpretive to the extreme, a highly idiosyncratic and surreal reading that in its own way displays a sincere loyalty and devotion to the source material. Akropolis has taken a gamble here. Their courage, as well as their talent, is admirable, though whether the risk pays off is up to the player. RICHARD MORIN
Aftermath Gallery; ends Sat., Nov. 13
It isn't always true that good things come in small packages, but choreographer Amii LeGendre has certainly put a good thing in a small space. After several dances that used large groups on traditional theater stages, LeGendre has gathered a trio of colleagues to perform with her in a work that combines rangy, athletic movement with a limited area. In a single room, with the audience scattered throughout, LeGendre and her fellow dancers—Scott Davis, Aaron Schwartzman, and Alia Swersky—jitter and swoop, sliding up next to viewers and whispering in their ears. For the performers, it's an exercise in close quarters; for the audience, it's an extra-close-up view, where we can see a dancer's chest rise and fall, or feel the damp warmth of a hand as a performer leads us across the floor to stand on the opposite side.
After choosing such confined quarters, the dancers make it even smaller, using bright blue tape to cordon off a chunk of the gallery, so that they seem like the illustration of atomic energy in a sixth-grade science film, where the electrons rebound faster as the boundaries around them shrink. They use bits of the tape to mark themselves and us as well, making the audience as much a part of the environment as the window that looks into the restaurant next door or the pillar in the center of the floor. Although the dancers occasionally escape these confines— at one point doing a lanky version of a time step on the sidewalk outside the gallery—they always return to the intricacies of the smaller space.
LeGendre has said that Almost Quarry is about the moment before completeness, and though there are places in the work that highlight that penultimate experience, it's also a kinetic jolt, a powerful lesson on the effects of proximity. Movement that looks virtuosic seen from a folding chair in the audience appears dangerous when it happens right next to you—the breeze on the cheek evidence of the speed and power of the leg that just slashed right by your head. SANDRA KURTZ