Sunday, December 10, 2017

Unsung heroes: Designers who add character to their shows

The set of American Buffalo at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre

As a critic, it's my long-held belief that designers can play an important role in boosting a production from one level to the next. In fact, their work can often add as much character to a show as do the contributions of its director and actors, just as designers can improve the quality of the storytelling through the efficient and effective use of space. Yet critics and theatergoers alike often ignore the contributions of these artists when discussing the shows they see. (And yes, I myself have been guilty of this at times over the years.)

It's no secret that Metro Detroit is blessed with an abundance of creative and skilled designers whose work can be seen in theaters throughout the year. Two recent productions served to reinforce just how important their work is to the success of a production.

The first was a few weeks ago when I attended the Detroit Repertory Theatre's season-opening production of Swimming Upstream by playwright Rich Rubin. The Rep is known for its shepherding of new plays and new playwrights, and this world premiere was enjoyable, but ultimately not very notable because of two things: a script that tries too hard to shoehorn the topic of climate change into a romantic comedy about a marine biologist whose specialty is saving salmon (and the world) from extinction, and the lack of spark and sizzle between its two lovebirds. (Sandra Love Aldridge as the biologist's mother, however, lit up the show with every appearance.)

But what I loved about the production was director Harry Wetzel's design for the set. Noted for his many years of design work at the Rep (among other things), I was impressed this time by his efficient use of space. Rubin's story unfolds in four separate places - an office, a restaurant and a couple of apartments (or houses) - and Wetzel was able to fit all of them onto the Rep stage simultaneously using multiple levels to help keep each location roomy, unique and separately identifiable.

What's more, his design allowed him as the director to ensure that scene changes were especially quick and short - and there were a lot of them - thereby not slowing down the action for more time than was necessary. As such, the story flowed from one scene to the next in rapid succession with just enough time in between for the audience to catch its breath and shift its attention to what happens next.

In addition, Thomas Schraeder's complementary lighting design helped define and focus the story's ebbs, flows and emotional beats.

As such, the show was well served by both artists.

That's also the case with The Jewish Ensemble Theatre's production of David Mamet's  American Buffalo, this time by pretty much it's entire design team.

The first thing I noticed as I entered the theater was the realism of its set. Mamet's story unfolds entirely inside a resale shop, and so set designer Elspeth Williams and property designer Harold Jurkewicz seemed to go all out in jointly creating a junky storefront that screamed "come in and browse" - so much so, that I observed several theatergoers wander about the front of the stage prior to the performance trying to check out as many of the goodies as possible. And at intermission, one gentleman seemed ready to walk on to the stage and take a closer look, but he thought better of it after hesitating a few seconds.

But what really impressed the heck out of me was how the inclement weather was handled - the rain against the windows, the thunder and the lightning - that in most productions come off as fake or artificial. Not here, though, thanks to Williams (as technical director) and the contributions of additional team members Neil Koivu (lighting design) and Matt Lira (sound design). Together their efforts were so effective and realistic that I briefly wondered if the windows of my car were closed when I first heard the torrential rainfall hit the storefront glass.

Enjoyable as the production was, however, it wasn't as powerful as I expected, mostly because some of the ingredients provided by Mamet - a rather tough taskmaster when it comes to wordplay and understanding its subtext - were under served or delivered a bit too cautiously.

For those unfamiliar with his work, Mamet is known for creating characters - often hyper-competitive alpha males - who live on the fringe of society or who are barely scratching the surface of the ever-elusive American Dream. In American Buffalo, a seemingly average junkshop owner is anything but, as we learn Don (Lynch R. Travis) is not above a little breaking and entering to increase his operating profit. Nor is his friend and accomplice, "Teach" (Matthew David), who worms his way in to a deal Don made with a recovering neighborhood junkie (Shane O'Connor).

Mamet's tight, street-smart dialogue - filled with subtleties, wordplay and varying degrees of manipulation among the characters as they jockey for power and control - is laden with profanity, and characters often talk over one another. Yet there's a rhythm to his words, an intensity, which eschews the usual line delivery found in the majority of plays. And that was what I felt was missing from parts of the production, which resulted in some of the interpersonal dynamics among the characters feeling a little off to me at times.

(I'll admit here to being spoiled by The Abreact's production back in 2008, which saw the interplay among and between the three characters sizzle from stop to finish.)

One final note: In his biography in the program, O'Connor says, "I'm sorry for always playing drug addicts on stage. At least it pays the rent." My words of advice? Don't be sorry! It was an absolutely amazing performance - so much so that I was ready to take him to a recovery clinic immediately after the performance to get him cleaned up!

* * * * *

Swimming Upstream runs through Dec. 23 at the Detroit Repertory Theatre. For show details, CLICK HERE!

American Buffalo runs through Dec. 10 at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield. For show details, CLICK HERE!

Swimming Upstream at The Detroit Rep with
Yanni Papadimos, Sandra Love Aldridge and Audrey Lovy

No comments:

Post a Comment