PLAY WITH REPEATS
Strawdog Theater Company
at Angel Island
The premise of Martin Crimp's Play With Repeats is well worn: a likeable nebbish who's dissatisfied with his life is given the chance to relive the past and in the process recapture the lost opportunities that obsess him--the jobs not taken, the investments not made, the relationships screwed up. But what makes Crimp's play different from such movies as Peggy Sue Got Married and It's a Wonderful Life is its refusal to succumb to Hollywood's conservative message: see, your life wasn't so bad after all.
Instead, Crimp's antihero, Anthony Steadman, not only discovers how helpless he is to improve his life, but also must face just how truly miserable he is, was, and ever will be. (If Crimp had written It's a Wonderful Life, the movie would have ended with Jimmy Stewart leaping to his death moments after telling Clarence the Angel to piss off.) Repeating the past only makes Steadman more aware of his failings. He still loses the promotion, still fails to win the girl. And we get the feeling that given a thousand repetitions, he would still experience his life as a series of humiliations and defeats.
You'd think such a nihilistic message would make Crimp's play difficult to watch. But it's not, thanks in part to its intriguing circular structure--at the climax of the play Crimp repeats word for word one of the earlier scenes--and in part to Crimp's gift for creating offbeat characters, such as the psychotic Lawrence Bott, who is both completely off his nut and the only character aware of the play's structure.
It also helps that Strawdog Theater's production nearly perfectly re-creates Crimp's nasty and brutish postpunk world. John Musial's bare-bones set--a few sticks of furniture placed in front of a chaotic, gray collage of newspapers and black-and-white photos--provides a visual echo of the busy emptiness of Steadman's life. As does the dark, musty, cavernlike auditorium. In addition, director Ted Altschuler has assembled a wonderfully talented group of actors--among them Shannon Branham, Charles Harper, Kerry Richlan, and Nick Gillie.
In fact, but for one misstep in casting--the choice of Lawrence Novikoff to play the central role of Steadman--this might have been an incredible show. Unfortunately, it doesn't matter one bit that Musial created a great set or that every other actor in the show is working double time--because there in every scene is one-note Novikoff, droning his way through the play, reading every single line with the same whiny inflection. Never for a moment do we empathize with Steadman's plight, nor do we ever completely understand why he does what he does. Steadman becomes a cipher we have no interest in decoding.
I don't mind Novikoff's schlemiel in small doses. I thought he was wonderful in his tiny role as an incompetent doctor in Chicago Actors Ensemble's Dzuma (The Plague). But in larger roles his failings overwhelm his strengths. Even in a play as full of bad performances as Strawdog's botched first production, House of Correction, his inadequacies stood out. And here he's performing with supple, talented actors.
If one can see past Novikoff, Altschuler is hilarious as the cracked professor Bott, and Shannon Branham as a shy student is nothing short of miraculous. She gracefully guides her scene with Novikoff in a commuter station from its sweet, comical beginning to its horrifying end, when the oafish Steadman, misreading her friendliness as sexual interest, almost rapes her. There is, however, only so much that supporting characters can do.
Altschuler and Strawdog Theater could take a lesson from a show being performed just around the corner at Angel Island, where the five-member cast of Tina Steele's Feast, an hour-long puppet and mask show, prove the importance of having an ensemble in which everyone carries his own weight.
Director and puppeteer Steele has assembled a troupe of young, committed performers who are perfectly comfortable with her daring hybridization of techniques from mime, modern dance, and puppet theater--she worked for a while with the Hystopolis Puppet Theatre--and who are equally at home performing in masks and operating Steele's rod-controlled puppets. It's hard not to be impressed watching them move gracefully around the stage, communicating so much with just a nod or a roll of a shoulder.
Steele and her company are such accomplished performers and their techniques so striking and fresh that they deserve a better showcase than this serio-comedy revue. In fact, these eight unconnected skits--with titles such as "We the People," "Industrial Love," and "Unrequited Love"--are so trite, so full of worn comedy and shallow social satire (Steele's use of masks to comment on our alienated society would have seemed old hat in 1930) that each skit is more disappointing than the last. By the end of the evening it's clear that Steele has no idea how to exploit the fascinating performance techniques at her command.