Oh I love, love, love playwrights, especially contemporary ones. They do not just craft a play for all of us theatremakers and audiences but they are the recorders of our humanity. I like how Arthur Miller stated it:
A playwright is the litmus paper of the arts. He's got to be, because if he isn't working on the same wave length as the audience, no one would know what in
hell he was talking about. He is a kind of psychic journalist, even when he's great.
History makes it quite clear that writers, artists are the first to go in any fascist country. The reason of course is because artists seek truth at all costs. For those who like to create an alternative reality, who like to lie for their own benefit, the artists are a threat.
Great playwrights are the goddesses and gods of the theatre. Douglas Carter Beane surely resides on Mt. Olympus. He also must have a huge heart to bring new work to a small city in PA, to continue to support emerging artists, and to continue to nurture students of theatre.
I saw his latest play, The Behavior of Light on August 1, 2019 at the University of Scranton’s Royal Theater. The production was produced by Scranton Shakespeare Festival.
The play, directed by its author and set in 1972, tells the story of a janitor, Teddy, who finds his life enriched when he discovers art and art making. He is introduced to the need, the compulsion to create, inadvertently when he eaves drops on the new night school (continuing ed) art teacher. He develops an old fashioned crush and she becomes his muse. There is so much more to the story. It begs to be seen, not read. These few notes of mine are my experience with the production on the evening I saw the play.
If only Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lanford Wilson was still alive to see this. His collection of outsider art may well have been one of the largest in the country. His walls were full of art. Every closet contained an overflow of art. Most people do not know that about him but it is true. I think he would have so enjoyed this play.
The play unfolds via Brechtian style theatre called epic theatre. Epic theatre, relies on audiences’ reflective detachment rather than emotional involvement; actors break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience to guide us through the journey. The two act play creates two separate worlds – one in which the characters live and breathe and a second world in the head of the main character, Teddy, as he creates collages and stories and makes his art.
Act I was completely engaging, clear, interesting, funny and touching. The “real story and characters” and Teddy’s “art story and characters” being created were very distinct. During Act II, I found myself drifting. Dramaturgically, it seems if the story characters overtook the real characters as a focus. Beane is such a powerhouse writer, he will figure it out soon enough. Then I was fully back and committed to the rest of the play and to the author’s created vision. There was so much richness and fun in the dialogue.
In the play, the speech explaining the behavior of light spoken by the night school principal, Robert, will stay with me forever. It will remain tucked away in my heart for those moments when I contemplate the nature, the effect of art. Interesting that those lines, well performed by actor Max Fitzroy-Stone, gorgeous and profound as they are, come from the mouth of the least sympathetic character in the play.
Douglas Carter Beane is a writer full of compassion, wit, and a sense of music in his dialogue and structure.
The Royal Theater, a glorious space to create in, is a modified thrust stage. As such, it presents unique advantages and challenges in staging. The advantages were seized but there were instances of clunky staging, as well. At times actors blocking and upstaging themselves became a distraction.
Seven energetic, well trained young actors, playing 17 characters, brought the story to life and guided us through this world of outsider art and small town /educational politics with an ethnic flavor.
Luke Anthony Neville, as Teddy the janitor and surprise artist, was so strong that it seems highly unlikely that he could ever lie on stage. (A very good thing – all actors aspire to that.) He got at the character’s deep desire; the very thing that drives a character. He was outrageous and so touching at the same time. Luke and Beane, in their creation of Teddy, have created a character for all time.
In the two separate worlds of the play, Teddy’s Art and small town PA, sometimes the cast fell into non-distinguishing character roles. The distinction between both worlds is crystal clear in the writing. We as audience do not get confused. Unfortunately, specificity was lacking in some cast members.
How fun were the skeleton and the frog – characters in Teddy’s art! I so looked forward to their strong and consistent characterizations. Lawryn LaCroix as Rowena fulfilled her characters journey in a believable yet interesting way. Her stage presence was commanding. Helen, Teddy’s mom, was played by Jane Logan with humor and affection. The role can be a balancing act – keeping the humor and keeping the character honest and not a caricature. Logan has the talent to do that but the night I saw the play, the balance was off. If you trust the writing and keep her honest, the humor will soar. It is there in the writing. It does not have to be “played.” As St. Helen, well, off she went soaring in her element.
I congratulate SFF for gathering a design team that worked magic on what I am sure was a very tight budget. It is very hard and takes great creativity to enhance the world of a play with very little funds. How do you do it?
The soundscape, based on Partridge Family songs (yes, you read correctly, Partridge Family songs) from the ‘70s kept us singing in our heads and smiling broadly while we danced in our hearts with the cast. Has anyone used the Partridge Family as a basis for sound in a play or film in 35 years? Oh, you are a clever one Douglas.
No one was credited with choreography. Do I make the assumption that is was a collaboration of director and cast? However it emerged, it was full of character and fun and true to the heart of the play.
Scranton Shakespeare Festival, I am thrilled to have you in my hometown.