One of the important things that any theatrical production has to accomplish is to get the audience to care about the characters in the story. It isn’t as easy as it sounds and it is the stumbling block that prevents many a performance from being all that it otherwise could be.
Two examples opened last week. They are very different shows, one with a cast of seven on a large set of an apartment in Chile, the other with a cast of just one on a small set featuring a chair, two suitcases and a wall of suspended pieces of paper. But each falls victim to the problem of getting the audience to care enough about the principal character to want to expend the energy needed to follow convoluted plot lines and put the pieces together to understand the underlying themes.
The Washington Shakespeare Company’s production of the Chilean drama "Every Young Woman’s Desire" tells of a young woman listed in the program simply as "She" who is victimized by a mysterious stranger just known as "He." Given the fact that it is 1987 and notes in the program make it quite obvious that the locale is a city in the South American nation of Chile, "He" is clearly an agent of the government of Augusto Pinochet who ruled that nation through a 17-year reign of terror following the coup of 1973.
When "She" is visited by "He," an officious and increasingly offensive man who assumes the authority to do anything he wants without restraint, she is instantly terrified. Since the audience never sees her in anything short of the state of panic, it is difficult to comprehend just what sort of transformation she has undergone. We never know the un-terrorized "She" so we never know just how far she has descended down the slope of fear and dread. Without that, it is difficult to make the connection between the world that playwright Marco Antonio De la Parra intends to expose and the pre-coup normalcy of Chilean culture.
The energetic but initially over-emotive Kari Ginsburg plays "She" in such a way that we see her become dazed by terror and disappear into a numbness brought on by overexposure to horror. Of course, there is ample reason for her reactions what with her boss being "disappeared," his replacement killed, her best friend also murdered and plenty of violence or threats against her person from Christopher Henley as "He." Henley is his creepy best (and few can play creepy as well as can Henley) but he has little to work with in this script. An ensemble of five additional actors play subordinate characters, each providing other events to increase the terror "She" experiences.
In the American Century Theater’s world premiere of Allyson Currin’s new drama "Treadwell: Bright and Dark" the entire cast is Melissa Flaim, a capable actress who brings her character to life with a host of tiny touches. This bio-play lets us get to know the writer/playwright Sophie Treadwell.
Who? Well, if you are a regular at this theater company, you will remember their production of Treadwell’s play "Machinal" six years ago. You might also recall that a short piece of hers was included in an evening of playlets by the same theater in 2007. But I don’t recall leaving the theatre after either of those productions with a strong desire to get to know more about the playwright, and this production spends a great deal of effort trying to answer a question that few in the audience actually are asking: "Who was Sophie Treadwell?"
That lack of intrinsic interest in the topic (at least for those whose interest in theater doesn’t approach an obsession) creates a problem for Ms. Flaim, and Ms. Currin’s script doesn’t offer a great deal of help in the early going. But it does provide many human interest asides which, in Flaim’s hands, add up to an intriguing character. In the end you like her Sophie Treadwell even if you don’t treasure your knowledge of her place in theater history.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland and writes about theater for a number of national magazines. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.