Harry's Christmas/Aria da capo | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Harry's Christmas/Aria da capo





Blueprint Theatre Group

at the Firehouse

A late-night series can allow a company to experiment with pieces that are not suitable for the main-stage season. It can also give inexperienced directors and actors a chance, let the company test material on an audience, or simply give more people an opportunity to work. But etiquette should suggest that at the very least the product offered be finished--if you're not ready, don't invite guests. Blueprint Theatre's late-night one-acts at the Firehouse are not yet ready for visitors.

The pieces themselves are quite interesting, in very different ways. Harry's Christmas, by Steven Berkoff (who also wrote Blueprint's current main-stage production, Kvetch) is a one-man show that deals with loneliness during the holiday season. Though the show is past being timely, Harry's predicament still has strong emotional resonance. It is also rich in humor and universal truths.

The play takes place on the four days before Christmas and culminates on the day itself. Harry is a lonely, 40-year-old man who measures his worth by how many Christmas cards he receives. Over the years the number has been dwindling; so far this year he has received only six, only one of which is from someone who is not a relative. Still, Harry is in decent spirits; he has four more days, and he figures ten cards would be a respectable showing. But over the next four days Harry begins to realize just how desperately lonely he is. "Loneliness is like a disease, or a smell," he laments. "One whiff and you put people off." Christmas finally becomes an unbearable demon that he must get rid of.

Aria da capo, an absurdist piece by the magnificent poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, is much less clear. It deals with greed and wealth, and the stupidity and callousness that accompany them. It seems to use theater as a metaphor for life and to show how farce and tragedy can coexist.

The play begins with two stock characters of commedia dell'arte, Pierrot and Columbine, sitting down to a meal. The scene is apparently a rehearsal, for it is interrupted by a man in black, the "masque of tragedy," who insists that they clear off so that he can direct his scene, a tragedy about two shepherds who begin playing a game that turns into war. When this scene concludes, Pierrot and Columbine begin their farce again--over the bodies of those who played the tragedy. The line between reality and pretense is as thin as it can be: people are done in by paper and ribbon props, and when they step offstage, Pierrot and Columbine go on being the characters they played in their scene.

The two one-acts are wildly different: one is steeped in realism, and the other is a highly stylized precursor to the absurdist movement. But both have power and resonance in today's world, and both are daring and exciting. Unfortunately, neither production comes close to realizing the potential of these plays. In fact, the Millay piece has been made almost unfathomable.

Lee R. Sellars as Harry seems charming and capable, with an impeccable ear for British dialect. But he plays Harry moment to moment, with no sense of where the character is headed or where he has come from. Some of those moments work beautifully. His unabashed delight upon receiving another Christmas card is a marvelous release from the angst of most of the play, making the humiliating moment when he discovers who sent the card all the more devastating. Other moments are mere rambling, with no connection to the larger text. Sellars also has trouble deciding whom he's talking to, the audience or himself. Often he seems to talk to no one in particular, with no apparent motivation for that choice either. All of which blurs his focus.

Yet Harry's Christmas is the picture of clarity next to Aria da capo. Russ Flack's past marvelous work in numerous productions (including Live Bait's Girls, Girls, Girls) would seem to indicate that he would be perfect as the arrogant buffoon Pierrot. But he poses and prances about the stage, spouting his strange lines aimlessly. Max Flack, as Columbine, follows his lead. Still, they are far more interesting to watch than Mick Thomasson and Jack Sullivan as the two tragic shepherds, neither of whom can convert the archaic, poetic language into anything believable or accomplish the slow buildup of hostility between the two characters. Their commitment to the material is so tenuous that when they call to the man in black, the director-prompter (Sellars again), for their lines, it's easy to believe that they really do need to be prompted.

The actors seem to be doing their best, but they can't make up for a lack of overall vision and clarity. Director Amy Field must shoulder much of the blame for these two worthy theater pieces going nowhere. It's almost as if the actors have been caught in the middle of rehearsal, before they've discovered their through lines.

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