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Monday, September 19, 2016

Eyeing the Storm

IT’S EASY, THESE DAYS, to investigate the evolution of motion pictures, but live theater is an experience of the moment and wears its history only insofar as a contemporary play accumulates trends of the past. But those trends tend to get thrown off as theater evolves and a presentational acting style turns naturalistic and then more naturalistic still.

From left, Brett Owan, Alexandra Doggette, Elisabeth Henry,
Kane Prestenback, and David Smilow. Photo by John Sowle
By the time George M. Cohan wrote “The Tavern” in 1920, Eugene O’Neill was winning the Pulitzer Prize for “Beyond the Horizon” and Broadway was about to get his “Anna Christie,” while Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” was playing down the street. In the wings were such playwrights as Maxwell Anderson and Sidney Howard and that innovative juggernaut, The Theatre Guild, all poised to change the face of Broadway entertainment – but this also was the year of “Frivolities of 1920" and a revival of “Floradora.”

“The Tavern” opened in the midst of all this as a both a tribute to and satire of the simplistic melodrama that O’Neill et. al. sought to supersede. This kind of story must have bubbled in Cohan’s very bones, given his by-then very long theatrical career, both as a writer and performer. He grew up touring in vaudeville and minstrel shows, and, with a long line of successes behind him, became fascinated with a script deemed so lousy by another producer that he sent it to Cohan just to share a laugh.

Catskill’s Bridge Street Theatre has introduced its new 84-seat Mainstage with a production of “The Tavern” that’s worth seeing both for its historic value and to enjoy the comfortable, intimate venue. Director Steven Patterson brings a cast of area performers to the stage, effectively marshalling a mixture of talents. It’s a cast of fourteen, always a tough economic challenge these days, but there’s enough experience threaded through the community-theater actors to bring a credible liveliness to the piece. Patterson, the theater’s associate director,
last directed a production of this piece nearly forty years ago in nearby Lexington – but few can claim to have helmed it even once. His affection for it shows.

Bridge Street Theatre’s Managing Director John Sowle designed the set, which gives us a spare, stylized room in a rural setting accented by a fireplace glow. Upstage left is a large door with a practical bar across it – needed because the storm that rages without blows hard against the people entering and leaving the room, kicking in a few leaves as well. It’s nicely accomplished with only physicality from the actors and, like so much in this script, becomes an intentional joke by the end of the piece.

The storm itself is signified by flashes of lightning seen through a frosted window upstage right and, best of all, a backstage crew of three madly activating thunder sheet, tympani, and wind machine. This can be one of the more thankless tasks in a show, requiring your services only for a single climactic moment, but “The Tavern” is storm-lashed throughout, and Natalie Parker, Alexa Powell, and Amara Wilson took a deserved bow.

The titular tavern is run by the imperious Zaccheus Freeman, a man as hostile as the storm outside. Played by Robert Ragaini, he is a frowning presence who turns amusingly servile when the state’s governor appears in search of lodging.

But the most striking visitor is a character billed only as the Vagabond. He’s a seemingly fearless man of big gestures and quick wit, the classic wayfarer who lives outside the bounds of convention. Played by Kane Prestenback (the sole Equity actor in the production), he is almost exhaustingly kinetic, leaping from stairway to floor as he declaims such apothegms as, “stories of women are more apt to be true than the women of whom the stories are told” and “if I were fool enough to say I thought you a fool, you’d think me a fool for saying it.” He needs a balance of brashness and charm, and Prestenback’s characterization was a little light on the latter.

Interestingly, the Vagabond has an awareness of the artificiality of the environment. Shortly after he enters he notes that he thought he was dreaming the storm and a bullet-laden encounter with Freeman. He compares the onstage action to action in a play, and even announces, as Act Two reaches a climax, that we’re seeing “a big melodramatic moment.”

There’s melodrama in the form of Violet (Louise Pillai), whose lifeless body is brought in from the storm but who proves to be deranged when awakened, accusing a key character of having betrayed her. There’s Willum, the simpleton hired man (Art Skopinsky, having the time of his life), in what Cohan termed the “low comedian” role. He inconveniently adores Sally, the serving girl (Lindsay Cahill), but she is in love with Freeman’s son, Zach (Gabriel James), against the wishes of Zach’s father. The Vagabond promises to resolve the difficulty, as would be expected of a melodrama’s wayfarer on a night like this, although one of the obstacles is removed in what now would be seen as a tasteless gesture involving gunfire.

As the Governor, David Smilow brings enough dignity to the role that he cen even appear in a nightshirt and cap and seem no less majestic. But it’s Alexandra Doggette, as his daughter, Virginia, who practically steals the show, because Doggette fully inhabits the style of the show, charmingly presentational in her manner and liltingly articulate in her speech. No wonder she turns the Vagabond’s head.

This production is a mixed success in terms of its acting values, but it’s certainly adequate to its purpose, which is to introduce a theater that already is proving itself an invaluable asset to its area, and to remind us of this country’s varied and wonderful theatrical history.

“The Tavern” runs through Sept. 25 with performances at 7:30 PM Thursday through Saturday.

The Tavern by George M. Cohan
Directed by Steven Patterson
Bridge Street Theatre, Catskill, NY
September 15, 2016  

1 comment:

Steven Patterson said...

Thanks, Byron! You'll be delighted to note that things have continued to tighten up and deepen since the preview you saw last Thursday (the first time the cast had performed the piece in front of an audience!). We were packin' 'em in all weekend & everybody seems to be having a rollicking good time. We truly appreciate your kind words and your taking the time to come out to review it in the first place. Thanks again!