We’ve all had some version of the same anxiety dream, personalized to our own particular experience. For most, it’s being back in school, faced with an exam for which we hadn’t studied, or finding oneself naked in a public setting. However, for anyone who has spent any time onstage, it’s the nightmare of finding themselves having to go on with no idea of their lines, blocking or even what play they’re in. Absurdist playwright Christopher Durang’s take on this nerve-wracking experience, The Actor’s Nightmare, makes up half of Arctic Playhouse’s current offering, An Evening of Christopher Durang.
Audiences used to somewhat lighter fare at the West Warwick theater seem to be embracing the darker, edgier offering presented here by director Christopher Plonka. “West Warwick needs more Durang,” says Plonka. Judging by the knowing laughs in the audience on the night Motif attended, the skewering of Roman Catholicism that pervades Durang’s work was wholly embraced. During the second piece, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, people were loudly offering up names of saints from their seats in response to the dialogue, gleefully recalling their own Catholic school days. As the night went on and religious subjects usually treated with reverence were spoofed, parodied and outright degraded, the gasps were ones of guilty delight, not outrage. Anyone who was ever rapped on the knuckles with a yardstick by Sister (insert name here), felt a sense of joyful payback. Neither of the two plays are what they seem, however, and both are complex enough to require some advance knowledge and a bit of glossary to really get at all of the references and sub-references Durang employs in his work. Laughs abound, but by the end of the evening, a sense of unease leaves one thinking more and more about how dark these two comedies actually are.
Actor’s Nightmare centers around an accountant who finds himself suddenly and inexplicably about to go onstage as understudy for Edwin Booth, the legendary 19th Century American actor who, in a twist on the actor’s good luck totem, has mysteriously broken both legs. In this dream, the accountant is given the moniker George Spelvin (a name often used in film to maintain anonymity), although he vainly tries to tell everyone that is not actually his name. There is no occasion for the entrance here, no leadup, no sense of accidental appearance. “George” is simply there, suddenly. In the sense that we don’t question our surroundings in our dreams, this makes sense, but we never quite lose this sense of, “Okay, now this is happening,” throughout the piece. Without any warning, George is hurriedly prepped by his somewhat annoyed co-stars, versions of famous stage actors from history, and Meg, the horribly efficient stage manager who thrusts George onstage, where the nightmare begins in earnest. Jeff Blanchette captures the mental gyrations of George (sometimes referred to as Stanley, just to keep him on his toes) perfectly, gamely bouncing from one scene to the next in a never-ending shift of plays – Noel Coward’s Private Lives one minute, Hamlet the next, climaxing in a scene from A Man For All Seasons, where he must literally fight for his life — all while trying to keep the show going. Olivia Sahlin’s Meg surreptitiously (and hilariously) appears as a maid from time to time in order to feed him the right lines, and it is in these moments where the surrealism of the piece truly comes through. Although Victoria Ezikovich and Meg Taylor-Roth turn in exceptional performances as the frustrated actresses trying to work with George (Taylor-Roth is wonderfully absurd in her portion involving Beckett’s Endgame, complete with garbage cans and callbacks to Waiting for Godot), we miss any sense of building anxiety as the nightmare, and the play, progress to their stark conclusion. While laugh-out-loud funny in many places, the overall impression is one of simply moving from setup to setup with no stakes for George beyond getting through each scene. During his sudden soliloquy in Hamlet, where the stage lighting finally comes into play, George breaks down into a tirade of lapsed-Catholic guilt and we sense that it is that guilt from which this “nightmare” stems. While the ending is bleak, we’ve meandered up to this point and any outrage or horror we may have felt merely comes across as a bizarre ending.
It is with Ignatius that we have a firmer sense of story arc with no less absurdity on hand, as we find ourselves at a lecture given by the titular Sister, played with suitable priss and pompousness by Mary Paolino. Anyone who ever went to Catholic school is immediately drawn back to the rote inanity of the tenets of Catholicism (including the constant reminder of how everyone misunderstands the term “Immaculate Conception”) and we even have the perfect Teacher’s Pet in Thomas, played by 6th grader Nico Marschat, whom one hopes is simply delivering a fantastic performance as opposed to having already lived through this abuse. Thomas receives a cookie for each perfect recitation of various Commandments and sits on Sister’s lap, rewarded for his obsequiousness. The play becomes something quite different, however, as a troupe of former students, dressed up for a Catholic school pageant (replete with a joyously wonderful camel) burst in and interrupt the lecture. Blanchette, Taylor-Roth, Sahlin and a beautifully understated Mario Sasso (who appears in Nightmare as an amusingly overblown scenery chewer) deliver some fine ensemble work here, deadpanning through the Nativity pageant written by a former preferred co-student of theirs. Once we discover that the real reason for the visit was to embarrass and confront their former tormentor, however, things get dark very quickly. As the topics of homosexuality, abortion, single parenthood and child abuse come to light, the nun’s response is not what one would expect. This is no morality tale and, although some of the stereotypes that date the piece back to its 1979 debut are left intact, Durang challenges us to balance justice with practical reality, given the absurdity (there’s that word again) of the situation at hand. We are heavily entertained, but it is a rictus grin we’re left with, afraid to scream lest we start an avalanche of terror in the theater.
An Evening of Christopher Durang, while common enough in a college theater setting or anywhere that embraces edgier work, is a challenge for audiences used to safer plays with more traditional plots. However, as we’ve seen lately with offerings such as American Strippers at the normally staid setting of Attleboro Community Theater, audiences today are ready to embrace some darkness and some uncomfortable humor. It may be a symptom of our current climate in 2018 America, but we may need a little more than another Neil Simon play to get us through the night. Kudos to Arctic Playhouse for rising to the challenge.
The Arctic Playhouse presents An Evening of Christopher Durang, directed by Chrstopher Plonka. Feb 22 through Mar 4. 117 Washington Street, West Warwick. For tickets, call 401-573-3443 or visit thearcticplayhouse.com