Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October 2005
Usually, I am fairly well in tune with the collective unconscious, but I fail to understand why for millennia humankind has seen the need to call up images of death and terror at the same time of year that the days are getting shorter and colder and all the color is slowly draining from the earth. Winter solstice celebrations, where we bring greens inside and light candles and generally whoop it up – those make sense to me – but this fascination with the macabre at the gloomiest time of the year escapes me.
So it was with not a little grumbling that I headed off to see and review an evening of one-act plays at Main Street Stage billed as An Evening of Autumnal Horrors. The evening consists of three plays by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright Doug Wright – Lot 13: The Bone Violin, Wildwood Park, and Baby Talk – and Scarecrow by Don Nigro. All are performed on an essentially bare, black stage, by a cast and crew that consists of a mother and daughter (Jackie DeGiorgis and Samantha Therrien), brothers (Bruce T. MacDonald and Douglas MacDonald), a husband and wife (Michael and Alexia Trova Trainor), and one other actress (Lisa Remillard).
At first blush this could easily be perceived as a vanity project, or an under-produced and nepotistic grab at the Halloween dollar, and half-way through the first offering, Lot 13: The Bone Violin I certainly feared that might be the case.
But first impressions are deceiving. After this early, weak entry each member of the ensemble got a chance to strut his or her stuff and prove that they were not just on the stage due to family ties, but because they were truly qualified to interpret the roles they were given.
Coincidentally, I attended the performance on October 27, the birthday of Italian violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) who was accused of acquiring his talent through a pact with the devil. And Wright does bring up Paganini’s name more than once in the course of Lot 13: The Bone Violin an odd piece in which a mother (DiGiorgias), father (Douglas MacDonald), professor (Bruce T. MacDonald), and doctor (Remillard) explain how the remains of a child prodigy violist came to be on the auction block. The plot is too supernatural to be plausible, and Wright is not clear in his allegory of all-consuming talent and the world’s right to unlimited access to the artist. Wright subtitled this piece A Fugue for Five Actors – although the fifth performer, the Auctioneer (Michael Trainor), is largely silent – and the four active participants frequently speak simultaneously or with lines that overlap. I found the end result neither musical nor theatrical. Director Alexia Trainor has created a static setting in which the actors talk at, rather than perform for, the audience.
Next up is Wildwood Park in which a real estate agent (DeGiorgis) is showing an overly interested client (Douglas MacDonald) through a palatial house which has recently been the scene of an horrific and unsolved crime. Apparently, someone was murdered or tortured in just about every room. DeGiorgis and Douglas MacDonald play the puritanically repressed Ms. Haviland and the salaciously macabre Dr. Simian with humor and zest. The sexual tension is so thick you can cut it with a knife as these two tease and torment each other upstairs and downstairs and in my lady’s chamber, as they say. There is no doubt that there is something ultimately sexy about extreme violence, certainly for the perpetrator, and, considering the number of television shows, movies, novels, “true crime” stories, etc. that the American public laps up, for the voyeur as well. And in the end one has to ask whether Ms. Haviland and Dr. Simian are really who they claim to be at all, or merely a kinky couple who get their thrills walking through empty houses together and fantasizing about the violence that arouses them.
Anyone who has ever raised a child will get a big kick out of Baby Talk, the hilarious and all too true to life story of a pregnant woman, Alice, (Remillard) who finds her body and mind taken over by the child she is carrying. That is, of course, exactly what happens during pregnancy, nursing, and the early years of child-rearing, but, this being a play and all, we get to actually see and hear the fetus, played with great cunning by Douglas MacDonald. Seated on a stool in front of a microphone he goes from an adorably gurgling embryo to a cigarette smoking potty mouth during the course of his gestation, and Remillard shows us Alice as she goes from being his biggest fan to his greatest enemy. The creation of life is an awful thing in every sense of that word. Wright obviously knows that Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein” while nursing her firstborn.
As Alice’s clueless husband (men don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ no babies!), Michael Trainor allows his eyebrows to droop woefully as he watches his wife morph from a seemingly sane woman to a hormone-encrusted harpy. It takes a woman to do right by this type of material and Alexia Trainor has done a great job eliciting hilariously poignant performances from her actors.
After intermission Nigro’s Scarecrow takes the stage, with Remillard as an agoraphobic single mother, Rose, raising her 18-year-old daughter, Cally (Therrien), in an isolated farmhouse in the middle of a corn field. Cally, naturally, is ready to leave home and establish her own life, but she feels a great loyalty to her mother, who depends on her for everything. And even more naturally, she meets and falls in love/lust with a young man, Nick (Michael Trainor). Is Rose’s distress over Cally’s romance merely a result of her terror of being abandoned, or are there really sinister forces at work?
Nigro is a prolific playwright who seems to specialize in ooky-spooky stuff, and frankly I found his writing here to be predictably formulaic. Trainor does his best to exude evil, but he is hampered here by the foolishness of the writing and the low production values. Not having a script I cannot say what kind of sets/costumes/lighting Nigro may have had in mind, or even if he wrote any stage directions to that effect, but I can’t but feel that a little more “stage magic” would have rendered the play scarier.
The other weak link here is Therrien, who is exactly the right age to play Cally, but not old enough to give her performance any depth. By the end, when Trainor is struggling to embody evil and Therrien is struggling to appear scared by it, it is a good thing Remillard is on hand to hold things together. I enjoyed her Rose, although I was annoyed that she occasionally found it necessary to express her simple down-home feistiness by leaping up and down like Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies.
Main Street Stage carefully subtitles this collection of plays “creepy tales with adult themes” and by “adult” they do mean sexual. As a grown-up person I found the goings-on very funny, but I happened to attend on the “Pay-What-You-Can” Community Night when many cash-strapped teens had come to see their pal Therrien and their teacher DeGiorgis perform. As soon as the final curtain fell (figuratively speaking) they made it very clear that they found it awkward to see grown-ups behaving like that! We forget that teens and even pre-teens may know all of the “facts of life” and still not be ready to confront the reality of themselves and others (especially parents and teachers!) as sexual beings. If there are children/teens in your family I would leave them home if they are legally “under age”.
An Evening of Autumnal Horrors runs Fridays and Saturdays, October 21 through November 5 at 8 p.m. and Sundays: October 23 and 30 at 4 p.m. There will be a special Community Night performance on Thursday, October 27 at 8 p.m. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is for adults only. For reservations or more information call Main Street Stage at 413-663-3240 or visit their Web site. The theatre is located at 57 Main Street in North Adams, a few doors east of Papyri Books.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005