Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Two St. Norbert plays delve darkness in unique ways

Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Two St. Norbert plays delve darkness in unique ways

“Far Away” and “One for the Road” are provocative.

PHOTO: The St. Norbert College Theatre Discipline playbill cover features images for “One for the Road,” left, and “Far Away.” Cover design by Megan Shultz

DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – Choosing two plays that are designed to disturb, the St. Norbert College Theatre Discipline tosses out standard concepts of theater in its presentation of Harold Pinter’s “One for the Road” and Caryl Churchill’s “Far Away.” Limited performances continue through Saturday, April 12. Info: tickets.snc.edu.

While I find the entire experience fascinating, this venture is something the general public would find hard to handle. Fair warning. On the other hand, there are folks out there who would be intrigued by this opportunity to see theater not with just teeth but fangs.

If it comes to choices between the two plays, “One for the Road” is the better performed, notably in enuciation.

Much is unusual about this set of plays and how they are scheduled and presented. First, I’ll cut to the quick and tell what the plays are about.

“One for the Road” is set in a room with two chairs and a small table. Three characters individually meet Nicolas, a super patriot who not so much interrogates the three subjects but explains the purposes of a higher power that he serves. Nicolas meets a man and his wife, who have been beaten, and their son, age 7, who has spat upon soldiers. With his use of the child, playwright Harold Pinter essentially grabs the audience by the throat to create sheer hatred for the vile Nicolas. FYI: The language and innuendoes are IN YOUR FACE.

As Nicolas, Michael O’Malley is fantastic as he pours on snarky nuances from beginning to end. For a collegiate level performance, it’s great stuff.

“Far Away” is set in two places, a house and a hat workshop – though there is far more to the set that I will describe later. We see Joan at three times in her life. First, she is a child who sees an episode with people being led away – about which her aunt lies through her teeth and makes sound innocent. Next, Joan is making hats with a young man, who warns her of fishy happenings in the entity for which they work. Then, Joan is a warrior of sorts. Playwright Caryl Churchill nicks and scratches and picks at rationales we have heard about wars so often – vague alliances, vague intentions, vague meanings – leading up to horrors and a rather conclusive ending to the play.

***

Creative (both plays): Director, Stephen Rupsch; sceneographer, April Beiswenger; lighting design, Clara Wendland; stage manager, Sam Evers; sound design, Tom Guttenberg; technical director/shop manager, Corey Pinchart; director of theater facilities, Paul Mashl; poster/playbill cover design, Megan Shultz.

Cast for “Far Away”: Joan, a girl, Elisabeth Will; Joan, a young woman, Kerry Galvin; Harper, her aunt, Melanie Mussa; Todd, a young man, Collin Stoltz; prisoners, Andrea Feitzer, Bingham Harper, Maggie Lottes, Vince Mastrodomenico, Hannah Nathan, Cassandra Otte, Michael O’Malley, Scarlett Pisarek, Yvonne Stapleton-Polack, Ashley Steinhofer.

Cast for “One for the Road”: Nicolas, Michael O’Malley; Victor, Vince Mastrodomenico; Gila, Scarlett Pisarek; Nicky, Bingham Harper (a third grade student specially cast).

***

The sequence of the plays is distinctive. Even though they are short – approximately 45 minutes – they are performed as stand-alone experiences at different times rather than back to back. To see both plays, you have to go to the theater twice.

Also different: If you go to the entrance door to the Webb Theatre, you can’t get in that way. The entrance to the performance area is down the hall, through a stage door. The seating is on the stage. The stage space is enclosed. It’s a re-created theater space, specifically for these plays. Seating is on chairs rather than theater seats. You are in a place that says this will be a completely different experience for you. The actors are within feet of you. You are in the moments of their characters. You are first-hand witness to what transpires. You are in places you otherwise would not be able to go; such is the effect of theater.

Also different: The set for “Far Away” is a major undertaking. As an audience member, you are in the set. The floor is painted to look like poured red concrete; cracks spread through the floor. All around are walls. Three that wrap around behind you give the impression of concrete, with much patchwork. The walls are 15 feet high and fringed with barbed wire. In front of you are two sections of wall, with the broken-off remnants of a concrete second floor with the support bars cut and exposed. The wall section to the left is broken about half way up and leaning toward you, with nine 2x4s holding it up. The wall section to the right stands upright, with 13 wires seemingly bracing it by way of a wood beam at the top. At the base of the left wall are rounded stones placed on pieces of paper torn from books and/or magazines. You see books, a barely distinguishable photograph and other jumbled items. At the base of the right wall is a jumble of a shoe and clothing items that give the impression of rubble from an explosion. Scenes in “Far Away” take place in places defined by a few props, with the backdrop not being part of the specific scene. The set represents the bigger thing happening, a war with its destructive power.

Side note: I once met a fellow, Darko, from Split in Yugoslavia at the time. He adamantly vented his spleen about differences between the Serbs and Croatians. “We’ll have a lovely war,” Darko said. Indeed. In “Far Away,” I could see what Darko’s world became – a horrible, deadly wreck. In “One for the Road,” I could see Darko as Nicolas, sipping brandy and intimidating others as his form of amusement. I never expected to see Darko again, but there he was.   

THE VENUE: The Neil and Mary Webb Memorial Theatre is the smaller of two theaters in St. Norbert College’s Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts. For this production, the stage only is used for seating, with audience entry by way of a stage door. Seating is for approximately 30. Any seat is close to the action, mere feet away for the front seats. It’s a unique, production-specific space. Nothing says “theater” in the traditional sense.

THE PEOPLE: Neil and Mary Webb were husband and wife. Neil Webb was president of St. Norbert College from 1973 to 1983. He earlier headed the St. Norbert psychology department. He left academics for a while before becoming president of Dominican College in California. In December 1987, Neil and Mary Webb died in an airplane crash in California in an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee. That was shortly before the Hall of Fine Arts was to be remodeled with a small theater in the plans. Neil Webb had a lot of friends in the community and had the reputation, so his name was used to raise funds for the theater.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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