Sunday, January 20, 2008

Thoughts on Barksdale's Production of "Moonlight and Magnolias"

I’ve been waiting for Scott Wichmann to burst through a glass ceiling.

He has been so wonderful on so many occasions. But there has always been a kind of glass ceiling hovering over him; I’ve struggled to define it.

He nearly shattered it during Scapino, a showcase crafted largely for audiences to enjoy his stunning timing, musical skill, athleticism, wit and inventiveness; together they have proven him one of the most engaging actors audiences will ever see on a stage. In fact, Scott flew so fast and scrapped so comedically hard as Scapino that he cracked a rib.

In Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop, he was a lithe, steel muscle playing a myriad of roles, out-Dannying Danny Hoch.

His violent realization of “Chicken,” in Tennessee Williams’ Kingdom of Earth chilled the theatre and was complete and visceral.

In I Am My Own Wife, he transcended gender and allowed a very human audience to accept someone very different from themselves, simply for the grace of their experience, the love of their life. He helped them see a character without prejudice of gender, sexual orientation, race or religion. It was a remarkable experience and one I won’t soon forget.

He’s a little guy who actually became the spirit of Frank Sinatra. I’ve seen him stop on a comic dime, catch an entire audience in one glance, and wind them around his little finger. For Richmond Shakespeare, he's shown us his Bottom. Twice. He was indeed a mercurial Mercutio, created a pathetic Malvolio. His Grumio could knit.

But there’s something still to do. There’s a role--I’m not yet sure which—that will do more than challenge him. It will allow him to become one of the immortals. It will rely on his comic timing, allow free use of his ability to move an audience, and demand absolute immersion; it will push Scott further than he’s ever been pushed. It might not necessarily be as physical as previous roles, but it will elevate him into (beyond?) the atmospheric likes of Bill Irwin, Kevin Kline, or Will Kempe somehow merged with Robert Armin. –Clown work, the work of an actor, at its most intelligent, transcendent and rewarding.

Clearly, I think that role will be a Shakespeare creation. But then, I’m a little biased. Stay tuned on that front.

One thing I know for sure: his role in “Moonlight” was a key part of the process.

In Moonlight and Magnolias this past weekend I had the delightful privilege of watching him work the straightman role, in which comic timing isn’t about the garish, outlandish laugh, the commedia-inspired, pie-in-your face laughter of Scapino or Bottom. Rather it was a character brimming with wit and inspired despite--maybe even because of--exhaustion. It was a subtle performance, and one I was thrilled to see. It’s a stone along Scotty’s path. Something else is coming.

Can’t wait to see what it will be.

* * *

Let me switch gears, however, because while I’m fascinated with Scotty’s progression, the full company in Moonlight and Magnolias was marvelous and I don’t want to give anyone short shrift. These guys (and one gal) are pros. The script was tight, the direction was really flawless and the performances were hilarious. Steve Perigard’s direction has always been great but here, some of his finest work was on display. It’s been fascinating to watch his growing confidence. Here, each moment of narrative suspense—comic or otherwise—was perfectly timed. The overall collaboration between actors, designers and audience (the real work of a director) was outstanding. Of particular note: watching the show one could clearly discern moments where actors and director debated the timing of a sequence; I recall every single one seemed to crack out of the park like a line drive. A specific recollection: Scott’s single “click” at the typewriter. Too long of a pause and you lose it. Too short and there’s insufficient buildup. It was just right, and the laugh was great. Director-freeing-an-actor. Fantastic.

The scenic design work too was fantastic, nicely evoking Hollywood power brokers of the late 1930’s, nearing the peak of its golden age. The properties crew did seriously impressive yeoman's work with aplomb, strewing the stage with the detritus of three men frantically finishing the screenplay of Gone With the Wind in just five days.

David Bridgewater’s rendition of Melanie Wilkes as she gives birth outdid even his “Prissy,” the slave whose famouslyfunnyanddisturbing “I-don’t-know-nothing-about-birthing-no-babies” line is perhaps the 2nd most famous in the film. David was simply hilarious, and has honed gruff tough-guy to an art. After The Lark, Over the River and Through the Woods, The Odd Couple and Caliban in The Tempest, I’m really looking forward to seeing David play someone crisp, smooth and stylish. Someone imperfect, yes, but with exquisite language. Something that forces us to figure out if all that toughness is internal or external. This boorish 1930's film director with fun vulnerabilities was great, but this and one turn as Cyrano just has not been enough to satisfy.

Joe Pabst, too, is an actor I’ve always really liked, from the very moment, long ago in The Boys Next Door (I think) when he leaned against a wall and I couldn’t tell where the actor stopped and the character began. He had several recognition moments like that in Moonlight and Magnolias; like the moment Selznick’s Jewish heritage serves as a lens through which America’s pre-war bigotry was painfully visible. Joe can stagger an audience in those moments. Through them, Pabst crafts the quintessence of an American. We seem to value self-determination, independence and the freedom to craft our life as we see fit. Perhaps that sentiment holds deeply true for all of us, among those truths we hold so self-evident: that God created us equally, to pursue happiness howsoever we define it. Selznick, in Pabst’s performance, seems to seize upon Gone With the Wind to propel him beyond the failures of his father, to achieve that which is proscribed by the society around him (openly or otherwise): simply to create—with the talents given him—and to refuse being defined by the dictates of others. Self creation.

Finally, there’s Joy Williams. Joy took on a potentially forgettable role, but especially at the climax of her character’s journey, in which she comes completely undone by exhaustion and laughter and doubles over onstage, Joy crafted a uniquely human moment. Her near-collapse was so real we absolutely loved her for it. So----Mr. Selznick! The rest of the day off was far too little a thank you for Williams’ effort. That girl deserved a raise.

Thanks to all of you for a really delightful night in the Barksdale.

Congratulations to Steve Perigard, to the design team, to the actors, to Bruce Miller for selecting the play and to Barksdale Theatre for rising transcendently above. Richmond will look forward to their next production. After all, tomorrow is….another day!


Frank Creasy said...

Hear, hear! I was there on opening night (dear God...has it been two months already?) I'm sure it has only improved with time, but we found it hilarious and absolutely delightful.

Congrats to Scott, David, Joe, Joy, Steve and company for a magnificent run, and I look forward to future opportunities to work with these wonderful talents and true friends of mine!

James said...

Hey there,

It's not my blog or anything, but last I heard there was an Elizabethan play being done on the other side of town. Why isn't anyone posting a discussion about that? Especially such an important prototype!


Andrew Hamm said...

Tune in tomorrow or Monday; I'm going to see it Sunday afternoon and plan to post.

Grant Mudge said...

I'm on my way it tonight..first night free after exams. -GM