by Byron Woods
LETTER FROM ALGERIA
1 1/2 stars
“I want to believe!!”
It isn’t just a tag line from that classic sci-fi series, The X Files. It’s also the rallying cry of theater directors, audiences—and critics—alike.
Think of it as just another way of putting the ancient show biz secret that more than one director has passed on to a jittery beginner on an opening night. For the audience is always pulling for you when you’re putting on a show. Always. No one deliberately wastes their energy and what little free time they’ve got to see a production that they know is a flop.
Those folks spend money to buy tickets. They actually go out of their way in order to find you, and place themselves, quite literally, at your feet.
They very much want you to succeed. They want to believe.
And it’s our responsibility as theater artists to prepare something by opening night that lets them do that. When we don’t, we’ve haven’t done our job. Those are the terms of the contract. It’s the work we’ve signed on to do.
For the most part, I could not believe the characters I was seeing last Saturday night during TALKING THINGS OVER WITH CHEKHOV, the third production of the year by Free Association Theatre Ensemble. This itinerant company’s tour began last weekend in Carrboro Artcenter’s West End Theater. The group travels to Common Ground in Durham this week, before closing in Cary, Sep. 9-11.
I have debated this week on how—or even if—I should write about this show. Sometimes we forego critique of a fundamentally problematic production, on the grounds that the work doesn’t meet the minimum standards for review. It makes sense: Print space is precious—more so than ever these days, after this decade’s economic disasters have cut page counts in papers across America. Now more than ever, published critique is a privilege, not a birthright. Generally, it’s only accorded artists whose work has achieved a significant degree of accomplishment.
The argument also runs on a parallel track, one which holds that a writer should be extremely clear about what good purpose is served in the cause of Art—ultimately, our common taskmaster—by chainsawing a work that’s already a disaster or, even less defensibly, humiliating the artists themselves.
This will be the second negative review I’ve written this week. The first one openly mocked a dreadfully unbalanced original script, and a professional director who basically threw an undergraduate actor over a cliff in its service—in short, placing her in an artistic position on stage where she could neither convince nor succeed.
I have no regrets in having done so. LETTER FROM ALGERIA was the first show in years I walked out on. I did so during intermission, at the end of the first act.
When GroundUP Productions, a New York theater company founded by UNC alumni, was allowed access to student labor, talent and a venue in the Department of Dramatic Art during the month of August, it was for one basic purpose. Their job was to provide a handful of advanced undergraduates the experience of working with professional-grade stage artists, on a show achieving enhanced levels of artistic accomplishment. (Indeed, that had been the outcome with this troupe’s previous visits, including a memorable production of Naomi Wallace’s Trestle at Pope Lick Creek that I lauded in 2008.)
To say the least, that’s not what I saw last weekend. Instead of pursuing that goal, the company pursued its own professional (and financial) self-interests instead, conducting what amounted to out-of-town tryouts for an unproduced—and deeply flawed—script they’d already invested in for their own company's October opening in Manhattan.
I watched director Kate Middleton desperately attempt to animate playwright Michael I. Walker’s wafer-thin characters throughout the first act, with miscast and poorly utilized student actors, in roles that were under-developed to the point of aesthetic starvation. Middleton’s unsuccessful efforts to plausibly stage the female lead character reduced a promising young actor's performance to an embarassing one-note caricature.
While something was being served on the Kenan Theater stage, it wasn’t the students. By intermission I’d seen what I could stomach, and left.
Then there was that problem with the facts. Though Letter was billed as an exclusively undergraduate production, one of the four artists on stage was a seasoned actor, director and playwright who had helmed a regional theater company in Sanford for several years, and whose scripts have justifiably been staged in theaters in the South. I remain unable to verify that the talented Jerry Sipp at this point is a graduate, undergraduate or faculty member at UNC.
We want to believe that professionals in an academic setting will always act in their students’ best interests.
We want to believe, for that matter, that a director knows what she’s doing, both in general and when she casts a certain actor in a role, and leads that actor to take real risks on stage. We want to believe she knows how to work with actors, to craft fully-dimensional characters in a fully-realized world.
We want to believe that a company has the competence to evaluate new scripts for stage, and then bring worthwhile new work to the public.
We want to believe that artists have ethics; that they’re capable of realizing conflicts of interest, see when they’re making big mistakes, and stop them before they get even bigger.
We want to believe. It is unfortunate when we find ourselves unable to.
It is Free Association Theatre Ensemble’s fourth year in existence as a company. By now, there should be no serious questions about this group's competence in matters of casting, direction and acting. Regrettably, their production of TALKING THINGS OVER WITH CHEKHOV raises fundamental issues instead about all three.
Playwright John Ford Noonan, who wrote A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking, has penned here a backstage—or more accurately, off-stage—dramatic comedy about a former husband and wife whose chance meeting in Central Park several years post-breakup spirals into a creative collaboration fraught with the usual and unusual gives and takes of the theater.
Marlene is a leading lady of the first echelon in New York—but one now approaching what is diplomatically called “a certain age.” After some time off from stage, she’s hungry for the role that’ll put her back on top. Conveniently, Jeremy, her ex, is reinventing himself as a playwright, and has a new piece that just might do the trick. The script’s familiar, but then it should be: It’s all about their marriage.
Despite Jeremy’s reservations, Marlene commandeers the text into “development,” as it’s called in the trade. In doing so, the former couple reenacts the dynamics that got them together—and broke them apart—in the first place. Noonan’s wry comedy bristles with theatrical in-jokes. When Jeremy claims the ghost of Chekhov has become something of a live-in script consultant (and drinking buddy), his conversations with the Russian playwright cover thoughtful issues in the life of an artist.
For this production to succeed, it must convince us that the woman on stage is a professional actor at the top of her game in New York, and that her estranged husband is an equally gifted writer. Within the first five minutes last Saturday night, it was obvious instead that director Noelle Barnard—and presumably company artistic director Julya Mirro—had put on stage a beginner lacking in the basic skills to convince us of her acting. Moreover, they'd made her a lead in what is fundamentally a two-person show.
Her recital of lines was marred, among other things, by stilted conversational rhythms and delivery, and jagged, rough approximations of individual feelings instead of organic emotional development and flow through her scenes. Her male counterpart clearly needed more training as well to overcome physical stiffness, work on timing and develop his sense of flow and organic emotional development as well.
We wanted to believe their acting. Repeatedly, we either experienced great difficulty, or could not begin to.
As a result, we are now led to question the competence of their directors, and this company’s ability to stage believable theater. It’s the last place a theater group wants to be toward the end of their fourth season. Particularly when their next production is the multi-level psychological maze and slaughterhouse of Marat/Sade.
I must also believe that Free Association is hemorrhaging audience at this point. Theater-goers in this area expect work that's fundamentally more competent than this. When they don’t get it, they tend not to return.
Our confidence in this group is now shaken. Free Association must immediately take steps to restore that confidence, with its audiences and the critics, before all faith in them is lost.