Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1999
Five minutes into the performance of "Lives of the Saints" I was holding my head in my hands. I knew that, even if the rest of the show was much, much better (and it wasn't), nothing was going to erase the memory of those first agonizing minutes. The acting was fine, the sets and costumes were lovely, but the writing was so agonizingly bad, so sophomoric, so deeply embarassing, that no amount of money or talent could possibly save the show.
If you are a huge David Ives fan who has laughed hysterically through his other two collections of one act comedies "Its All in the Timing" and "Mere Mortals", then by all means stop reading now, buy your tickets, and enjoy yourself. I would actually be interested to hear from someone who has seen more Ives than I have whether this series of plays measures up to his previous two compilations.
"Lives of the Saints" is comprised of five short comic plays. The show runs a hair under 90 minutes with no intermission. A bell always goes off in my head when a play is performed without an intermission. After all, theatres make good money off of sales at the concession booths, and most audience members enjoy a chance to stretch their legs. Ninety minutes is short for a full-price, main stage production. An intermission would bring it to closer to two hours and make patrons feel that they had gotten their money's worth. No, the only reason not to have an intermission in a show like this would be for fear of a mass exodus.
Like "Off The Hook" currently running at Oldcastle, "Lives of the Saints" has had only one other professional production so far - at the Philadelphia Theatre Company in January of this year, also directed by John Rando who is Artistic Associate to the BTF. I suspect that the deal was arranged for the BTF to have the "honor" of staging this show because of Rando. You would have thought someone on the Board would have read the script, or even made the trip to Philly to see the original staging. It might have saved the BTF from ending their 1999 Main Stage season on such a sour note.
Along with Rando, four of the five actors, set designer Russell Methany, lighting designer Robert Wierzel, and sound designer Jim van Bergen all worked on the Philadelphia production. And the remaining actor and costume designer Jonathan C. Bixby have worked with Rando on Ives productions before. Nothing is wrong with the work of any of these people. It is their strong loyalty to Ives which mystifies me.
I understand that two of the five one acts in "Lives of the Saints" are new since the Philadelphia production. If they are better, then I shudder to think of what they replaced. If they are worse, then Ives and whoever allowed him to insert them ought to be shot.
It is a tremendous and sad waste to have invested so much talent and money in this turkey. The entire ensemble cast is great. I especially enjoyed the many accents of Arnie Burton; and the comic versatility of Anne O'Sullivan. Nancy Opel looked so very, very much like a young Mary Tyler Moore that it was disconcerting, but if you're a big Laura Petrie fan you might get a kick out of it.
Of the five plays the only one worth mentioning was the last, from which the evening takes its title. "Lives of the Saints or Polish Joke" was the only piece which resembled a dramatic thought. It concerned two older Polish Catholic women working together in the church kitchen to prepare a funeral breakfast for a friend whose husband had passed on. They had done this same thing together in this same kitchen, that there was a happy rhythm to their banter and their cooking. At the end, when they sat down to rest and nibble discretely at their creations, doves appeared over their heads. Of course those are the saints. The people, men and women of all faiths, who toil cheerfully for their friends day after day, year after year. And then Rando had to ruin it for us by opening the backdrop and letting us see how the sound effects were being made. Sainthood isn't enough? You gotta have a gimmick??
The four earlier plays were barely funny, let alone dramatic. And I nearly swallowed my teeth when I read that Ives had received a Guggenheim Foundation grant to write this stuff. I would rather have public and private support go to a hundred Robert Maplethorpes than one David Ives. This is not art. This is not even good gag writing. This is crude, sophomoric slop. I would be embarassed to sit through this stuff at a high school playwrighting festival.
"The Lives of the Saints" runs through September 4 on the Main Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge. The show runs just under 90 minutes with no intermission. Call the box office at 413-298-5576 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999
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