KPBS AIRDATE: December 05, 2003
Strip down and expose the naked truth. That’s what theater is supposed to do. When you take away the sets, costumes and techno-wizardry, what’s left is narrative and personality. Two current shows get back to basics: telling tales and creating characters.
“Story Theatre” was devised in 1970 by Paul Sills, son of the doyenne of improvisation, Viola Spolin. With his talented Second City troupe in Chicago, he created a seemingly loose but tightly conceived form of theater based on improv, where the actors both narrate and perform, creating multiple characters on a bare stage with the most minimal props — a hat, a pipe, a scarf. North Coast Repertory Theatre’s new artistic director, David Ellenstein, worked with a capable cast of nine to recreate this decidedly ’60s theater experience, but devoid of its political undertones. “Story Theater” becomes a family-friendly, non-holiday retelling of the not-so-sweet-and-gentle fables and fairy tales of Aesop and The Brothers Grimm. Some, like “Henny Penny” and “The Robber Bridegroom,” are familiar; some less so. And though the play is definitely an ensemble piece, some folks do stand out: nimble, rubber-legged Jonathan Meza, funny Arnold impersonator Randall Dodge, as well as Fred Harlow and Laura Bozanich in multiple roles. The sound effects created by the cast are wonderful and the evening passes pleasantly, bringing us back the joy of storytelling. To keep it even more engaging, less would be more.
Same can be said of “Another American: Asking and Telling,” at Diversionary Theatre. Actor/writer Marc Wolf spent three years collecting interviews, from gay people and straight, about the military’s ‘Don’t Ask/Don’t’ Tell’ policy on homosexuality. In the dramatic format made popular by Anna Deveare Smith, he appeared Off Broadway in his play, slipping from one character to another, offering various perspectives, male and female, pro and con. But Smith used minimal props to distinguish her characters, and this would be helpful at Diversionary, too, where Russell Garrett looks perfect, in his Army khaki and lug-boots, handsome in either a gay or a military way, as needed. But his characters are not always clearly distinguished. Some of those military guys meld into each other. The second act is slow to start, but it contains the evening’s most compelling account, of a mother whose gay son was beaten to death, beyond recognition, by his shipmates. Overall, the play is fragmented; we’re shown various colorful pieces of a puzzle, but they never coalesce into a unified picture that makes a particular point. Both shows would be much more potent at an intermissionless 80-90 minutes. But the players are pliant, and in this overblown age and overstuffed time of year, it’s a beautiful thing to go back to the simple art of character-building and storytelling.
>©2003 Patté Productions Inc.