Impact Theatre closed last season with John Ford's 17th century tragedy 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, filling the slot usually reserved for Shakespeare in the company's otherwise contemporary docket. That spot's taken up by A Midsummer Night's Dream in February, but in the meantime the company returns to down-and-dirty Jacobean tragedy by way of the modern American heartland with Tallgrass Gothic.
Melanie Marnich's play, which premiered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville's 2004 Humana Festival, is loosely based on The Changeling, a play from the 1620s by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, which in turn is based on plots and characters from John Reynolds' 1621 collection The Triumphs of God's Revenge Against the Crying and Execrable Sinne of Wilful and Premeditated Murder.
In Middleton's tragedy, Beatrice falls in love with Alsemero, but she's been promised to Alonzo. De Flores, a creepy servant of her father's who follows Beatrice around, kills Alonzo for her but then won't accept money as payment, demonstrating why his name sounds like "deflowers." Her way now clear to marry Alsemero, Beatrice has to prove she's a virgin on her wedding night, which she isn't, so she has her waiting-woman Diaphanta stand in for her on the wedding night and then has Diaphanta disposed of as well. It's all terribly convoluted, and that's not even getting into the madhouse subplot that gives the play its name.
Tallgrass Gothic is much less complicated than its source material, with less than half the cast of characters, but it's also not as well defined. However much the characters talk about themselves and each other, their reasons for doing things remain elusive. The characters are thinly sketched, and the suddenly supernatural conclusion is anticlimactically abrupt.
Laura is having a giddy love affair with Daniel, but she's also married to a lout named Tin, whom she can't stand touching her, although he's chillingly insistent on doing so anyway. It's only when Daniel starts to get possessive about all those hands on her body (and it's true, she gets felt up a lot in this production) that her husband has to be eliminated. When she starts to respond to the vile Filene's advances, it's not out of coercion but because she's getting mixed signals from Daniel, and Filene's repulsiveness turns her on.
Mina Morita gives the play a brisk, workmanlike staging in Impact's Berkeley black box basement space at La Val's Pizza. Sarah Coykendall's set suggests a rural shack or barn, with a loose-planked door, straw on the floor, corn stalks, and tools hanging on the wall, and a bed tilted up to face the audience. Miyuki Bierlein's effectively casual costumes include filthy jeans for the guys, slinky sun dresses for Laura, and a little jacket with epaulets for best friend Mary.
Mayra Gaeta is compelling as Laura, frisky and playful with her lover and cold and wary with her husband. Even at her most vulnerable there's an emptiness in Laura that feels appropriate to the character as written, and makes the stupid or horrible things she does seem credible, if never sympathetic. Maybe she does these things to fill the void, somehow unaware that the void is her.
The trouble is, the other characters feel empty at the core as well. Chris Celotti is full of lyrical pillow talk as Daniel, but with a distant air that increases as he quickly retreats from heavy petting to pettishness. Joseph Rende is all thick-headed aggression as Tin, and Bryan Quinn makes an amiable galoot as his buddy Scotto.
There's a lot of talk about how crazy Mary is, between her baton-twirling and sword-swallowing, pounding back the Pabst and making inappropriate comments. But that aspect of her seems halfhearted in Elissa Dunn's performance next to how clingy and fragile Mary is underneath her wispy veneer of the freewheeling drunk.
Stacz Sadowski is amusing as the filthy Filene, despite a sense that there's not much behind his sinister leer. "You're not a body with a scar," Laura tells him. "You're a scar with a body." You could say the same of Sadowski's sadistic grin.
The dialogue is made up of florid pronouncements that are sometimes as poetic as they aspire to be but just as often sound like soap opera melodrama. A line like "People like you make the locusts come" is relatively fresh and evocative, but "Loving you breaks everything I know" would be more at home on an Air Supply LP. A scene of swapping ghost stories is included only to set up some ghostly visitations that are awkwardly integrated into the action later on.
Tragedy is characterized by disastrous consequences that the protagonist brings on herself through her own actions and decisions. Tallgrass Gothic retains some of the bad behavior of The Changeling but strips it of meaning and motivation. Shit happens. People do things, maybe because there's nothing else to do. That makes the play feel ultimately like the people in it — engaging on the surface but hollow inside.
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