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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Landscape of the Body
John Guare's Poetic Noir Puzzles Out a Vision of Our Lives

Garage Theatre Group

Also see Bob's review of The Most Deserving


Justin Cimino and Sarah Koestner
There is much that is lurid and dark in John Guare's original and hard to classify 1977 play Landscape of the Body. There is also some (albeit dark) humor and much that is poetic. The play, which is constructed as a puzzle, is bookended by a scene on the night ferry to Nantucket six months after the murder at the center of the puzzle. Events which will never be known to either Betty, the principal suspect in the gruesome murder of her 14-year-old son Bert, or Captain Martin Holahan, the dogged NYPD detective who, comically disguised with a toy store moustache and pair of glasses topped with bushy eyebrows, has followed her onto the ferry. These events are introduced by us by Rosalie, Betty's late, omniscient sister, and then played out by their participants.

Much of the play is set on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, and occurs after Betty and Bert arrive in New York City from Bangor, Maine, with the family mission of bringing Betty's older sister Rosalie back home. In short order, Rosalie is run over and killed by a biker on a 10-speed bicycle, and Betty assumes her jobs, which include performing in pornographic movies. Earlier events are revealed and the story goes backward and forward in time in innumerable short scenes, monologues and song (music and lyrics by Guare).

Director Michael Bias has done a remarkable job of casting and staging this freewheeling, multifaceted and complex play. His passion for< i>Landscape is apparent in the life which he has given to it. There are likely complexities in character and humorous subtleties not fully revealed here, and there are two characters, Betty and Holahan, whose transitions in persona are too abrupt and unmodulated to be fully convincing. However, despite this, the production and performances capture more detail and nuance than one would expect possible, given the resources available to this company.

Sarah Koestner is heartbreaking and appealing as Betty, a simple small city woman who gets caught up in a series of maelstroms after arriving in New York City. Koestner nicely incorporates her realistic and poetic sides. Nicholas Wilder is a furious force as the abusive Captain Holahan. Marci Elyn Schein is fully ingratiating as the free spirited, unrestrained Rosalie. Schein gets to perform most of Guare's songs, and her performance of them is strictly in character.

Justin Cimino as Bert, who commits vicious, homicidal crimes against gay men whom he lures from Christopher Street bars (the play was written and is set in the 1970s), is so totally convincing as the scary, vicious teenager, one may get the incorrect impression that he was cast from the streets. Bert also does very well selling "I Used To Believe," Guare's most moving and thematically crucial song. Justin Cimino (Donny), Arielle Haller-Silverstone, and Lauren Slakter (Margie) lend solid support as Bert's headed for no good companions. Guare and the performers clearly delineate the singular personalities of each of them.

Paul Murphy plays Durwood Peach, who has been obsessed with Betty since she was 17 years old, with panache. Peach may be Betty's ticket to a new life. Murphy deftly captures the full humor of his role with grace and ease, and without diminishing the pathos of another of Guare's lost dreamers. Fred Alvaro embodies the pathetic nature of Raulito, a Cuban immigrant who runs a fraudulent travel agency. He wears a lacy dress because, as a poor child, he saw Americans wearing them and assumed that it was what all wealthy Americans wore. Julian Song brings effective menace to the largest of his three supporting roles.

As Guare notes in the play, "The mystery is always greater than the conclusion." However, Guare is exploring a far greater mystery here than the murder of a 14-year-old boy. That mystery is the very nature of man.

Suffice it to say that Guare posits that life on earth and the achievement of our dreams and goals is inherently difficult, and our natural impulse for affirmative behavior is often squashed by life's experiences. Yet, we find pleasures in life which (I'm quoting too literally here) "hooks" us to the earth, and make us persevere through our pain to retain it. Guare sets the bar very high for us to accept his heartfelt compassion for those who display despicable behavior. However, Guare's storytelling with its poetic and emotionally impactful dialogue makes Landscape of the Body and its passionate humanity hard to resist. Michael Bias and his Garage Theatre Company are to be congratulated for having had the ambition to tackle it. They have done so with an admirable degree of success.

Landscape of the Body continues performances (Thursday - Saturday 8 PM/ Sunday 3 PM) through March 1, 2015, in residence at the BergenPac Black Box Theatre, 38 Van Brunt Street, Englewood, NJ 07621; 201-569-7710; on-line: garagetheatre.org.

Landscape of the Body

by John Guare; directed by Michael Bias

Cast
Betty………………………………Sarah Koestner
Capt. Marvin Holahan…………Nicholas Wilder
Rosalie………………………...Marci Elyn Schein
Raulito………………………………...Fred Alvaro
Bert………………………………….Justin Cimino
Donny………………………….....Jason Martinez
Joanne……………….Arielle Haller-Silverstone
Margie…………………………….Lauren Slakter

Mask Man/Dope King/Teller………Julian Song
Durwood Peach……………………Paul Murphy


Photo: Courtesy Garage Theatre Group


- Bob Rendell



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