If Wordshed Productions weren't prepared by now to perform the short stories of John Cheever at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, there'd be serious cause for concern. After all, last weekend's performances of A Paradise it Seems marked the third time this noteworthy company has visited the same works by Cheever in recent years. Wordshed initially staged the three stories in Paradise--"The Wrysons," "The Swimmer" and "O! Youth and Beauty!"--along with a fourth Cheever story, "The Death of Justina," in a May 2002 production called Shady Hills. Even more improbably, the near-capacity crowds actually filled UNC's Swain Hall last Friday through Sunday to witness a restaging, since A Paradise It Seems originally launched in Swain last May. But this version keeps only "The Swimmer" from last summer's collection, while retrieving the other works from 2002's Shady Hills.
All of which raises one question in particular: Why so much interest in a trio of thrice-told tales?
For one thing, last weekend's dates were run-up performances to Wordshed's second appearance at Scotland's celebrated Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Wordshed first performed at the largest theater festival on Earth in 2002, when they adapted the stories of Jill McCorkle and Clyde Edgerton in an original production called Crash Diet and Other Sins. The results: middling audiences--not bad for first-time festival unknowns--and positive notices, including The Scotsman's three-out-of-five star review which termed their work a "mighty fine four-course taster of country-America."
Two years later the crew returns with lessons learned: they're slated at a better venue and in a much better time slot. (For those who'll be in the neighborhood, the company will appear Monday-Saturday, August 9-14 at Bedlam Theater in Edinburgh. Tickets: 5-6 pounds. Showtime's 8:30 p.m. each night.)
But the main reason to write home about version 2.0 of A Paradise It Seems involves the growth its individual sections have clearly undergone, as well as the satiric nuances adaptor/director Matthew Spangler has uncovered during the intervening year (or two).
When the initial production concept compromised the urban horror of "The Swimmer," last year's Paradise seemed an uneven patchwork of twice-told tales. But the comparative poise, confidence and sophistication of this year's model speaks to an adaptor, director and cast who have matured considerably since May 2002.
As a result, the company's last word on Cheever is also its best to date. Which is why we have, at present, only two for Edinburgh's audiences and critics: Heads up.
In "O! Youth and Beauty!" Cash Bentley, a faded high school track star comes to a bad end while ridiculously--and literally--chasing former glories, vaulting over the furniture at neighborhood parties. Spangler convinces as the fatuous Cash, while Hannah Blevins is priceless as his increasingly nervous wife, Louise. Seemingly little has changed in this adaptation--up until the very end of the story, where Spangler's and Blevins' new satiric grace notes now leave audiences with a mordant chuckle instead of a chill. This revision testifies to how one small moment, reseen, can leave an audience with a fundamentally different appreciation of a work.
Nor is this the only time a second look results in a different vision. To the unsettling, ambient early music of Moby, Maria Chrysanthou gets at her character's most private fears (and, possibly, ours as well) in "The Wrysons," exploring a dream that seems stolen from this year's headlines. Her work and that of Jordan Smith gives this tale a compelling mix of deadpan humor, ambiguity and urban pathos.
The laughs are plentiful in "The Swimmer," the slapstick closer for the evening. Dressed in swim trunks and nothing else, Chris Chiron ultimately gets drenched by all cast members as his character loses family, house, job and youth ostensibly in the course of swimming all of his neighborhood's pools in one afternoon. As is the case with Cheever, when the laughs stop we're left with uncomfortable realizations about the disaster of foolish goals and the flimsiness of ambitions; one last joke on us, told here with a killer smile.
Be on the look out, Europeans. Company's coming.
Comic Potential, Actors Comedy Lab, Thompson Theatre, Friday-Sunday through Aug. 21, $15-$12, 515-1100