Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Any Other Name: New Period Melodrama Displays Promise
The time is the 1840s. The place is London. The once revered "mad poet" John Clark has fallen from public view and, unbeknownst to the world at large, has anonymously been locked away for ten years in the bowels of a dreadful asylum for the insane. Clark believes that he is William Shakespeare and not himself, of whom he says, "I've heard of him a silly man a worthless man ... he shoveled shit." Admirer Edward Ballard, an unsuccessful, mediocre poet has somehow located Clark in the asylum where Ballard hatches a plot to steal Clark's unpublished, pre-commitment poems and pass himself off as the institutionalized Clark.
The play takes any number of twists and turns as Ballard's wife, Margaret, avariciously joins him in the plot; the publisher to whom he brings the poems rejects the unpublished poems believing that they will not sell because they fail to fail to support Ballard's public image as a "mad poet"; eventually, the publisher confirms his suspicion that Ballard is not Clark, and Ballard brings Clark to his house to write new poems. When Margaret realizes that her husband's plan is a house of cards, she takes matters into her own hands. The big surprises which author George Brant has in store for us will not be revealed here.
The juicy melodrama intelligently raises the issue as to whether success in the art world is more contingent upon the image and cachet of the artist than the inherent quality of his creations. The story is clever and entertaining, with the plot turns sustaining our interest even when they are predictable and stretch credulity.
On the downside, the blandness of the production distances us from the play. Although director John Wooten begins the evening with eerie, menacing symphonic music, it is not until the final scene that we know that we have been watching a would-be chilling Gothic melodrama. More in the way of over the top exaggeration in the performances and the use of unsettling music and sound effects would have helped sustain a sense of menace and humor. Riper, more melodramatic dialogue would also help. The laughter that does occur seems a response to awkward dramaturgy. As of its first performance, to its disadvantage, Any Other Name seems to be masquerading as an unmodulated, straightforward historical play. However, the outlines of an entertaining melodramatic romp just waiting to be realized can be readily discerned.
Within this context, John Wooten has directed a smooth, well acted production. Fletcher McTaggart is convincing as a nebbishy, amoral failure whose need for success outweighs any other consideration. Audra Taliercio easily encompasses both the initial innocence and the shrewd, acquisitive immorality of Ballard's wife, Margaret. Paul Molnar as John Clark walks the fine performance line between madness and ridiculousness without ever stepping over to the latter side. The always reliable Carl Wallnau is a smooth and believable ogre as publisher Andrew Maddock. It is perhaps Wallnau who comes closest to bringing out the Gothic element of this play.
Joseph Gourney's deep set, nicely aided by the lighting of Nadine Charlsen, effectively encompasses the asylum, the Ballard sitting room and the publisher's office.
While work remains to be done, it appears that both Any Other Name and its playwright George Brant have the potential for a successful future.
Any Other Name continues performances through September 20, 2009, (Thursday-Saturday 8 p.m. /Sunday 3 p.m., at Premiere Stages on the campus of Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, New Jersey 07083. Box Office: 908-737-7469, online: www.kean.edu/premierestages/.
Any Other Name by George Brant; directed by John Wooten