The Voice of the Turtle/Light Up the Sky | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Voice of the Turtle/Light Up the Sky




Classic American Theatre

at the Theatre Building


Strawdog Theatre Company

Watching the revival of a classic play is like listening to a story you've heard many times before. If the story is well told, you don't mind hearing it again. If not, you get bored and remember the times you've heard it told better.

Classic American Theatre's Equity production of John van Druten's 1943 The Voice of the Turtle is a splendid revival of an excellent but certainly familiar play: it pulls the viewer into the lives of its characters and doesn't let go until the final blackout. Strawdog Theatre's rendition of Moss Hart's 1948 Light Up the Sky, on the other hand, is a noble, enthusiastic effort but falls victim to sloppiness and uneven performances. It makes you remember better productions of similar plays.

The Voice of the Turtle is a simple enough story: an actress resists falling in love with a soldier on leave. Sally Middleton (Lia Mortensen) and Bill Page (Si Osborne) are brought together when Olive Lashbrooke (Mary Ernster), Sally's best friend and Bill's original date, gets a better offer for the evening and leaves Sally to take care of Bill. Over a weekend a romance blooms between them as they discuss the failed affairs of their past and discover each other's vulnerabilities.

The strength of van Druten's characters and the honesty of his writing transform what could have been a rather pat love story into gripping, magical theater. The playwright examines the beauty and absolute terror of falling in love, and though a line here or there reminds us that the play is nearly 50 years old, the attitudes expressed about casual sex, trust, and the conflicts between commitment and career are incredibly current. The play also contains some interesting insights into the difficulties actors have in separating their true emotions from the ones they portray onstage.

The power of van Druten's play is fully captured in Classic American Theatre's nearly flawless production, seamlessly directed by Suzanne Petri. Despite a rather shaky opening ten minutes, complete with rushed lines and slightly garbled diction (it took me quite a while to figure out that the music playing was the "Londonderry Air" and not the "London Derriere"), the production soon got on track with three very solid performances.

I've always maintained that the best directors and performers are the ones whose work doesn't show, who make the product look so effortless you forget that weeks of painstaking rehearsals went into it. In this production all three actors perform with natural grace and intelligence, from Osborne as the sensitive, guileless Bill to Mortensen as bubbly, lonely Sally to Ernster as catty, cynical Olive. These are memorable, absolutely believable portrayals.

The Voice of the Turtle is Classic American Theatre's inaugural production, and it isn't a flashy one. Thom Bumblauskas's set is a serviceable one-bedroom apartment, and Birgit Rattenborg Wise's costumes are appropriately frumpy. All this show has to offer is a very well acted and directed revival of a very good play. But what more do you need?

Strawdog Theatre Company's non-Equity production of Light Up the Sky seems to show the play's age, but I don't think it's the fault of the script, a witty and entertaining satire of show business that takes gentle swipes at petty actors, megalomaniacal producers, and self-important playwrights. In this jittery production the show has the feel of something you've seen before even if you haven't.

Set in the hotel suite of prima donna Irene Livingston (Isabel Liss), the play takes place on opening night of a show written by first-timer Peter Sloan (Harvey Fries). We watch as a menagerie of familiar comic characters embrace the young, wide-eyed playwright before the show opens, savagely reject him when they think the play is a flop, and embrace him again when the reviews are published.

Along the way Hart manages to poke fun at just about everybody in theater, suggesting that "There's no business like show business" might not be an adage to be proud of. Among the characters are the pompous, foppish director Carleton Fitzgerald (David Franks dressed like Ronald Colman and acting like a Muppet); vicious, cash-obsessed producer Sidney Black (a funny performance, but somebody please tell Steve Savage how to pronounce "schmaltz"); Irene Livingston's hapless gooney bird of a stage husband (Michael Termine, looking and sounding a lot like a young Mel Brooks); and Livingston's cackling, gin-playing mother (Jennifer Yeo, getting a lot of laughs for a performance that comes dangerously close to Millie Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show). Toss into the mix a veteran playwright so successful that he doesn't write plays anymore, a masseuse of questionable ethnic origin, a loudmouth Shriner, and a crass booze hound of an ice skater, and you have a pretty good recipe for comedy.

Under Larry Novikoff's direction, Strawdog Theatre--which has done excellent work in the past--lets this one get away. The show looks as if the director kept shouting "More!" instead of reining in his actors. Sure, they're supposed to be playing caricatures, but they shouldn't act like they know it. The comedy should come out of the fact that these people don't realize how ridiculous they are. Here, someone always seems to be mugging or winking at the audience. The direction's also a little sloppy; though the space is certainly big enough, it feels cramped.

Some performances do come off quite well, however, especially Fries's naive, understated Peter. He seems to be one of the few members of the cast who understand they're playing human beings, not cartoons. Many of the others are talented and get off good lines, but they don't bring their characters to life. The show also seemed to be adversely affected on the night I attended by a crew of well-meaning friends of the company, whose uproarious laughter seemed to throw off the actors' timing. And you know something's wrong when audience members are glaring at people for laughing at a comedy.

This production inspires nostalgia, but probably not in the way that was intended. One leaves the theater wishing one could fly back into the 40s and see the play then, when it was probably done better.

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