Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2007
I want to make it clear that this commentary is based on a one-night-only performance of these three short plays. While not staged readings, these were also not full productions, and no admission was charged. What I saw were clearly works in progress and I offer my comments on them in the spirit of helping the playwrights, directors, and actors in their work as they continue to polish and revise.
I continue to be fascinated by the work of the Bakerloo Theatre Project, a group that identifies itself as “emerging artists.” From my regional point of view they “emerge” from their day-to-day lives in New York City to perform every July/August somewhere in Troy, and part of the fun of seeing and reviewing their shows is finding my way to the various venues they beg and borrow from RPI. For Variations, an evening of three short one-act plays by Adam Mathias and Joe Mihalchick, they performed at Mother’s, a space I was dying to see and found deeply disappointing, until all the lights went down and it was illuminated solely by flickering tea lights. Then it was very pretty and didn’t look like a sanitized version of a student rathskeller at all.
But the point was not the venue. Bakerloo cleared out a corner of the low-ceiled space and called it the stage. The audience sat comfortably at cabaret-style tables, enticed not only by free admission and very tasty free snacks and beverages, but by the fun of seeing these talented young people present the first fruits of their new endeavor, the Old is New Play Project, which aims to help develop new adaptations and interpretations of classic plays, stories, and novels. Bakerloo launched the project last summer with their clear-headed, chorus-less new adaptation of Sophocles “Antigone.”
These three plays: A Long Conversation and Desdemona Lives by Adam Mathias and The Map is Not the Territory by Joe Mihalchick, were developed with Bakerloo company actors in mind and inspired by themes and characters from two of Anton Chekhov’s short stories and several of William Shakespeare’s plays.
The evening opened with Mathias’ A Long Conversation which was inspired by two of Chekhov’s short stories. It has been many years since I read Chekhov’s prose so I cannot tell you which stories Mathias used, but as soon as the two actresses in the piece came on stage and started talking I recognized Chekhov’s cadences and themes, and that made me smile because I like Chekhov, and I liked Mathias version of him.
When I saw and reviewed Paul Schmidt’s translation of Uncle Vanya at Hubbard Hall last month I wrote about how my best girlfriend and I were struck by how Sonya and Yelena’s scene, which in this staging took place immediately before intermission, mirrored our own rambling relationship over the last quarter of a century. Obviously, Mathias is not a woman and was not thinking of that scene in “Uncle Vanya” when he wrote The Long Conversation but there is no doubt that he was reacting to the same sense of universality in Chekhov’s writing and characterizations. Here a young married woman Sophia (Sarah Murphy) and a retired actress Katya (Gwen Hervochon) have the inevitable Chekhovian conversation about love and desire thwarted and restrained and indulged and rebuffed.
Murphy is vivacious and coy as she explains her pursuit by an unnamed lover who tempts her terribly, and whom she obviously tempts in return, all the while begging her husband to solve her problem by taking her and the children away – a request he repeatedly rebuffs on financial grounds. Hervochon is world-weary and a little bit wiser, but she too puts off a suitor, not because she is already taken but because she can’t imagine ever being taken. The two actresses played off of each other neatly in William Addis’ deceptively simple staging.
The Map is Not the Territory was the weakest of the plays. I guessed where Scott (Joe McGranaghan) was and why he didn’t remember his brother Victor (John Steffenauer) and could only recall fragments of his life long before the big reveal. Mihalchick’s musing on mortality and what, if anything, comes after, struck me as obvious and juvenile. Granted, everyone involved with Bakerloo is fairly young and Mihalchick did write this piece to be performed by young men, but still it bored my 50-something sensibilities. McGranaghan and Steffenauer don’t really look alike but they passed easily as brothers on stage. I found McGranaghan the more relaxed and interesting of the two actors. Steffenauer seemed unfocused and slipped a few times on his lines. Ryan Howe’s direction was interesting, but staging action on the floor when the audience is seated on the same level means that only the folks in the front row can see what is going on.
While The Long Conversation featured a character who was an actress, and The Map is Not the Territory took place on an empty stage, Desdemona Lives, also under Addis' direction, dealt most directly with the theatre. For most of the first half we listen as two actresses, who have just come off stage from performing in Othello chat while they take off their make-up. The characters have no names, but the actress played by Sarah Murphy is playing Desdemona, and his very cheerfully involved in a romance with a horribly bad fellow actor. They are planning to move to Chicago together where he will give up the stage (thankfully) and become a Phys. Ed. Teacher. The actress played by Gwen Hervochon expresses envy. Then John Steffenauer arrives on the scene as an old flame of Murphy’s, and Hervochon makes a hasty exit to reset the prop handkerchiefs for the next performance. Steffenauer begs Murphy to return to him, she refuses, they share a kiss, and all is over.
I am not sure I understood why I was supposed to care about these people. Hervochon’s character was clearly only there to give Murphy’s a reason to talk. And I did not believe that Murphy’s character really loved Steffenauer’s, but if she did, I was not clear why she turned him down. The Phys. Ed. teacher didn’t sound like that big of a prize.
The trio played nicely together with no intermission, and were received well by the crowd at Mother’s, who I suspect were mostly friends and relations of Bakerloo company members. The plays all dealt with characters who were actors and had strong theatrical themes, which also played well to the theatre-savvy crowd who enjoyed many of the inside jokes. Which led me to ask the inevitable question: “How would they play in Peoria?”
The answer, I suspect, is that they wouldn’t and they aren’t meant to. They were written as dramatic exercises to be performed, dissected, and discussed by theatrical types in academic or cultural surroundings. However, I am happy to say that these are not plays which require vast amounts of homework on the part of the audience before they can be enjoyed, like the last play I reviewed with the word “variations” in the title, The Nina Variations at the Miniature Theatre of Chester (now the Chester Theatre Company). That play made me want to chuck my Chekhov out of the car window. These works can easily be enjoyed on their own by people with little knowledge of Chekhov or Shakespeare as little playlets about theatre people in varying circumstances.
I will be interested to see these short plays again if Bakerloo chooses to revive, restage, or rework them. Certainly Mathias and Mihalchick are up-and-coming young playwrights whose other, longer works will hopefully make their way to the region before too long.
The Bakerloo Theatre Project's production of Variations ran for one night only. Check their Web site for their 2007 summer season schedule.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007