Regional Reviews: San Francisco
An Intriguing Production of Craig Lucas's Small Tragedy
Craig Lucas has devised a "play within a play" with certain sections of Sophocles's Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex being spoken by members of a fine cast. At times the Greek tragedy relates to the problems of the actors who are auditioning for a community theatre production of the play.
Small Tragedy is an unhurried backstage drama about a small theatre group trying to get the Greek tragedy off the ground in a suburb in Boston. This six-person chamber piece opens with auditions, then progresses into a hilarious first rehearsal where chronic relationship problems and new attractions threaten the practicality of the production.
Pompous director Nathaniel (Mark Anderson Phillips) and his co-director Paola (Amy Resnick) are attempting Nathaniel's comeback from a failed Hollywood career by presenting his own version of the Sophocles play. He urges his actors not to act relevant to the events of the day, as if it the play isn't already relevant to today's life. As the play proceeds there are small tragedies that provocatively match the Greek play. The actors unload some of their own problems as the rehearsals continue.
Small Tragedy goes from rehearsals to a get together after the tech preview, through opening night in Boston, and there is an epilogue with a surprise ending a year after the opening of Oedipus Rex. Lucas has developed each character through offhand dialogue. Much of the dialogue is overlapping as in the film Citizen Kane or a Robert Altman film. It is so natural it seems unscripted. A problem in the small theatre where the audience sits on three sides of an intimate stage, is that it's impossible to hear all of the conversations going on at the same time in many of the scenes. This would play better on a proscenium stage. (In fact the theatre is offering patrons a return visit for $10 to sit on another side of the theatre to hear conversations.)
Current political matters are discussed along with how to portray the roles in Oedipus Rex by Nathaniel, who is a right wing director and believes that America can do no wrong. Jen (Carrie Paff) plays an actress returning to the stage after a seven year hiatus of living with the wrong man. She is a strong liberal and gets into confrontations on politics with the director over aspects of the antique play.
Other characters are Hakija (Matteo Troncone), a young, brooding, elusive Bosnian economics student who turns out to be the group's most gifted actor. His cruel history of what happen to his family in that war torn country repeats in lines from the Sophocles play, especially "All killed, save one." Fanny, a young actresses doing her first Greek play and sadly uninformed about world events, asks Hakija "Isn't there, like, a sort of war there?" Christmas (Greg Ayers), a young fey actor just taking a break from his Theatre Arts studies, is an airhead who has no set political views. However, he is interested in going to bed with both Nathaniel and hunk Hakija. Paola, the co-director who has health problems (HIV positive) and is the live-in partner of Nathaniel, believes her problems caused his downfall in Hollywood.
The six member cast is super. Matteo Troncone (Old Globe actor) is an outstanding talent as the ominous, mysterious refugee from Bosnia. His charismatic speaking voice when emoting as Oedipus is commanding. Carrie Paff (Emma in Betrayal plus The Haunting of Winchester at San Jose Rep) is heartrending when she talks about her past life with the wrong kind of men. Her arguments on liberalism are pertinent to the play.
Mark Anderson Phillips (Around the World in 80 Days, Family Butchers, Dolly West's Kitchen) seems to have developed a persona to play pompous characters and is excellent in the role of the right wing conservative director. He also plays the role humorously. Amy Resnick as co-director Paola gives a glib performance. The word battles between Paola and Nathaniel seem to reflect the characters in Oedipus Rex.
Rebecca Schweitzer (On the Flight Plan, Private Eyes at Playhouse West) is appealing in her role as Fanny. Greg Ayers (The Shooting Stage and Holes) is very good as the naïve young man who is in love with Nathaniel. He tends to make spring-like movements like a jive artist and comes out with hip little phrases with a nervous kind of laughter. He changes from being a very fey boy to the mannerly roles of Teiresias and the Messenger in Oedipus Rex
Kent Nicholson has expertly staged this production on a small stage surrounded by the audience, although persons sitting in the center section will have difficulty hearing what conversations are going on at the back wall.
Small Tragedy runs through May 14th at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets please call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.
Aurora Theatre will close out its 14th season with Thomas Gibbons's Permanent Collection opening on June 16 and closing on July 23rd.