Saturday, September 22, 2012

Theatre Critique #1: Manicures and Monuments

“How many toenails will it take to get to South Dakota?"

I think that Vicki Caroline Cheatwood’s Manicures and Monuments, put on by the local Blue Moon Productions, was intended to be tragicomedy, but I cannot say that with any authority. It is very hard to discern the intended effect from a play that seems almost schizophrenic in tone, switching from comedy to cynicism and from engaging supporting characters to stale supporting props in the time it took me to eat a slice of the fantastic lemon cake served during intermission, which was by far the best part of the entire experience. The audience, most of whom were quite a bit older than myself, seemed to take it as a series of humorous ‘There but the Grace of God’ vignettes, but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that we were all supposed to go home and be grateful for our human connections, no matter where we find them. Either way, the quality of the play itself, combined with the mediocre talent of Blue Moon Productions, was not what I would call an enjoyable hour and a half.
            The cast tried very hard. That is the best thing I can say for them. The two main characters, Bailey (played by Sahona Littig-Albin) and Janann (played by Hannah Brock), seemed sincere, but confused. I never lost sight of the fact that they were playing characters, as opposed to being characters. Their mannerisms, movements, and even word choices seemed unnatural on their bodies. The pacing between their lines was also unusual. At times, Janann and Baily almost seemed to trip over their words, while other times, there were perceptible pauses. In both cases, the timing was jarring, as were Janann’s lack of articulation and flubbed lines. Bailey’s artificial ‘Old Lady’ warble was problematic, as were the varied volumes of the cast as a whole. No member of the cast, including Bailey’s lapdog Camille (played by Jillian Hunsdon) and Nurse Smitty (played Laura Ewing) managed to keep a steady volume, and the constant change was uncomfortable and made it hard to focus on the play.
Naturalness is a problem throughout the entire production. No one managed to end their monologues naturally. The pauses within the monologues were obvious and false, their declarations sounded like questions, and their gossip sounded like sadness; stilted and full of insincerity. The female nursing home residents sounded lively when cattily gossiping, but grew flat and dead when the lines called for any emotion. Nurse Smitty was the closest to a natural tone, but her awkward movements and costume ruined her overall effectiveness. Every movement, from pregnant Janann’s running exit (Has she ever even seen a pregnant woman move?) to Nurse Smitty’s fake almost-slap, were obviously and sadly deliberate, and badly paced. The most natural entrance is from Mr. Swanson, a bit character that dies before intermission, without a word to remark his absence after said intermission.
No one manages to interact naturally. Bailey and Camille sit stiffly together, Nurse Smitty and the residents, including Luther and Sammy (played by Tyrell Albin and Jordan Godlewski respectively) have obviously choreographed movements, while Janann avoids touching anyone outside of her capacity as a manicurist – and she should at least touch Bailey, as an example of their growing relationship.
Bailey is such a strong character to be played so weakly. Baily’s warbling voice, her small mannerisms, and even her limited movement within the room all suggest a weak complainer, as opposed to the force of nature that she seemed written to be. Janann should be boiling under a thin veneer of polite (an interesting inner conflict), but Hannah Brock’s rendition comes off as unintelligent and neurotic, at best. Nurse Smitty is meant to be seen from two perspectives – her own, wherein she does the best she can as an overworked nurse with too many patients, and Bailey’s, wherein Smitty is seen as lazy and uncaring. Bailey’s point of view, while vaguely alluded to, never seems like more than piss-and-vinegar as opposed to a display of Bailey’s compassion, and does not endear her to the audience. To top off the bad acting, Luther’s sudden transformation from rocking mess to avid conversationalist in the last scene of the play is, quite frankly, completely unbelievable and added nothing to the plot.
The scenery is alright; rundown furniture evoked a standard low-budget nursing home. There are some nicely inventive touches, such as a calendar on the wall, some changing wall and piano décor, and other telltale signs to indicate season and the passing of time. Unfortunately, they didn’t manage to keep up with these elements throughout the play, making them more confusing than helpful.
The costuming was equally hit-or-miss. Bailey and Camille always look appropriate, but no nurse has ever worn such ill-fitting scrubs for so many years on end, and Janann doesn’t so much as suggest the time and place as she does a quick trip through a local thrift store on a small budget. The male residents look nothing like any male nursing home resident that I have ever seen, save Mr. Swanson (played by Clayton Hunsdon), who looks and sounds his part for his whole fifteen combined minutes, all of which could have been cut with no loss to the play.
The lighting is just bad, frequently casting shadows across the faces of the actors, which wouldn’t have been so bad if you didn’t need their facial cues to understand what they were saying. There are no sound effects to speak of, but the television theme songs playing between scenes was a nice touch that helped set the period.
The set was used well. Each space was utilized in a way that wasn’t too canned. The overall feel of the set was appropriate, offering a pictorial composition that matches the time and place intended by the author and director. The characters move within the correct spaces, albeit awkwardly through no fault of the director. The pacing is bad but again, it’s due to awkward entrances, exits, pauses, flubs by the actors, and even a weird tempo change in the script itself, and does not seem to be an issue with the blocking of the play.
The audience seemed to enjoy the play. There was minimal talking, nudging, cell phone use, or other distractions. They laughed at the appropriate moments, gasped as the appropriate moments, and clutched their chests or purse straps at the appropriate moments. However, the play seemed to be forgotten as soon as the curtain went down, because I didn’t hear a single comment on the production during our exodus to the parking lot. The playgoers seemed to be a social group, and more concerned with the gossip therein than in discussing whatever the play made them feel, which lends credence to the idea that it didn’t really make any of us feel anything.
Altogether, this play showed the best and worst of Community Theater. The cast and production staff came together with a dream and a limited budget, and made this production happen. The play itself had quite a few issues with pacing, with character development, and even with wording, and although their struggle is evident, it highlights their desire to do well. Unfortunately, this desire manifested itself in overacting worthy of Master Thespian himself. I did not enjoy this play, but I would certainly attend another play by Blue Moon Productions or by director Jack Hunsucker, in the hopes that their experience led them to improvement and just to support their efforts, which are admirable in and of themselves. (Or even for more of that lemon cake.)

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