Theatre I'm Still Thinking About: Arcadia, My Fair Lady, Dinner With Friends

The below post is the result of my thoughts about “Why My Theatre Posts Are Rarely Short". All three of the productions below are ones that I saw late in their run and thus didn’t write publicly about. I don’t want the attention I give theatre in my conversation to be determined by whether or not it will help market the show, so below I’ve listed the thoughts I wrote, but never published for whatever reason, about three strong local productions.

Arcadia, December 2018

About 6 months ago, I had the privilege of getting to see the closing night of StageCenter’s production of Arcadia, directed by Mandy Mershon. As a script, Arcadia is not the world’s most accessible piece of theatre, though the same can be said for Shakespeare in the modern age. Tom Stoppard is well known for writing work that is often seen as “intellectual,” and in that sense it takes work to engage with his writing, regardless of how well performed it is.

This show was a departure for StageCenter, and a good one I think. There aren’t many directors who would have the guts to take on such a language-heavy production, and for that reason alone I think it is something we should applaud. As I was saying to a friend, I think it’s incredible that in the same few weeks, B/CS had access to kids theatre (TROUPE and Seussical at TTC), adult comedy (Who’s Holiday), and the kind of theatre that really makes you think (Arcadia). Regardless of your feelings about Arcadia, the fact that it was done at all is something to celebrate.

And frankly, the reason to celebrate extends beyond its mere existence in this community. There were some strong performances on stage, none moreso than from the youngest members of the cast. It’s exciting to see young people hold their own next to more seasoned performers, and pretty much everyone in this production is near the top of their game. In my opinion, several performers can count this production as one of their best performances, and others (with whom I was unfamiliar until seeing this show) have brought their A-game as well.

The blocking and scenic design of the show were strong elements in the direction; I don’t know that I’ve seen so much done with just a single table on the stage, and not a large one at that. It never felt stale or boring. While a bit more development in the fourth wall (and justification for certain characters remaining in the room) might have helped communication locale more effectively, the relational staging was overall quite strong. The director’s note, which is often overlooked as a means of preparing an audience for a production, provided some key tools for access into a more heady work.

There’s a lot of academic concepts, but they are merely the entry point to a much larger conversation about meaning and self-worth, especially as to how we compare ourselves to others; topics with which we are all familiar, especially in the age of social media.

The cast and director put together a very solid show overall, with a number of truly excellent moments sprinkled throughout. I keep thinking about this show because Ihope that theatregoers in B/CS will continue to support and encourage a wide variety of work being done here. The artists are clearly ready to take it on, and we are all the better for it.

My Fair Lady, February 2019

To be honest, I was ready to not like this performance. I find the conceit of the story to be distasteful and problematic, and I wasn’t sure that it could be redeemed. While I’m not entirely sure that it was fully redeemed (or ever fully redeemable), Director Adrienne Dobson made a strong argument for it, adopting the choice made for the revival, allowing Eliza to full exit the story at the end, rather than suggest that she might for an instant stay and put up with Higgins’ abuse.

This was a show with SO much energy. From moment one, every single person on that stage crackled with an energy that was palpable. They were having fun, and it made it that much easier to have fun watching them. Jeff Garrison-Tate absolutely stole the show and chewed the scenery to bits every time he was on stage as Alfie Doolittle (which is exactly what Alfie Doolittle should/would do), and Camilla Busselburg turned in her finest acting performance to date (the subtlety of the silent work at the top of Act 2 was absolutely brilliant in particular). Cody Arn also turned in an ambitiously successful set design, particularly on the interior of Higgins’ house.

But the reason I keep thinking about it is because of one song, performed by Paul Early as Henry Higgins. That role is not an easy one. He’s not exactly a villain, but in many ways he is the true antagonist of the piece, a fact that often goes overlooked by directors. As it was originally conceived, with Eliza returning to him, there isn’t much room to argue that he has anything to learn from…the cycle of abuse will simply begin again once the honeymoon phase is over.

But in this production, during Higgins’ song “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” what I saw was a man descending into the madness of his own privilege and abusiveness. The mask slipped, and for once, he began to truly look like the petulant toddler that he is, throwing a tantrum because Eliza refuses to succumb to his will. It was a chilling and quite powerful performance, one that I think about often as I watch men around the country descend into their own tantrums as they realize that women and those who truly love them will not go down without a fight.

Dinner with Friends, February 2019

In the interest of full disclosure, I had a hand in creating this piece of theatre, providing the lighting design for the work. However, due to my schedule and the rather static nature of the lighting design, I never got to see a full, start-to-finish run of the show until performances.

This is not a happy, feel-good show. It’s a show about becoming adults, growing up, and the grief of losing relationships along the way. Most crucially, the pain of loss that the audience most acutely feels is likely not the pain of romantic divorce, but the loss of friendship. The breakup of a friendship is, in some ways, a lot easier and a lot more painful than the breakup of a romantic relationship. Our friends often precede and sometimes even outlast our romantic relationships, and the bond of friendship is less defined but in some ways even stronger.

This is what we experienced in the most powerful scene of the play, as Harold Presley’s Gabe and Michael Prince’s Tom met in a bar after a period of time, and Gabe realizes in that moment how much their paths in life had diverged. Both were incredibly strong in that scene, but Harold completely outdid himself in a new way, led by the steady hand of director Heath Lagrone. Harold and his counterpart Khara Emmitte (Karen) were believable as the steadier of the two couples, while the nervous energy of both Michael’s Tom and Jessica Walker’s Beth lend credibility to their eventual turmoil.

This show is an example of what happens when strong plays with relevant themes are paired with a director who understands the people inside of them. Characters have to become people in theatre, especially theatre that is intended to emotionally engage us. If we can’t relate to their humanity, then we’ve missed the entire point. If I’m honest, I keep thinking about this show because of Harold. After seeing him in many comedic roles over the years, to see him take this on so readily and so effectively was truly a joy. It makes me wonder what other artists in this town aren’t being challenged by the type of work that is more common, and what wonderful things we would find if we challenged them more often.