Web Onstage: NKU says Y.E.S. to new theater

Northern Kentucky University's answer to the Humana Festival in Louisville is the biennial YEAR END SERIES FESTIVAL OF NEW PLAYS. The first Y.E.S. Festival was launched in 1983, and below you can read commentary by CityBeat's theater reviewers to the sho

Apr 11, 2007 at 2:06 pm

Historical Satire: In the Wake of King Death

More than 75 years ago, Robert Frost penned these lines as a metaphor of the theater: "The play seems out for an almost indefinite run./Don't mind a little thing like the actor's fighting./The only thing I worry about is the sun./We'll be all right if nothing goes wrong with the lighting." It seem that Frost was prescient about a lot of things; and perhaps his end-of-the-world predictions as well.

Off-Off Broadway playwright Chuck Spoler, whose play In the Wake of King Death premiered at the biennial Y.E.S. Festival at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) on April 14, is thinking along the same lines as Frost. But Spoler sets his fantasy in medieval France during the Black Death, a holocaust that massacred a third of the world's population at the time. This sounds like a strange and off-putting subject for a play, but forgive me if I contend that with the HIV epidemic, global climate change, the world more at less at continual war and the so-called "End Times" slouching toward Bethlehem, we might have an important new work on our hands.

The plot of Death is much too discursive to relate in any detail. The play's action concerns the survival of a few characters in an exploded medieval world, including such personages as Princess Joan of England, a real-life victim of the plague. Spoler has imagined what might have happened if she and other characters in the play had lived to tell about the plague.

The student cast at NKU is decidedly uneven, and they are not generally well served by the physical production. Ronald Shaw's set seems to take place in a nebulous limbo, providing little contextual variety for the actors to work in.

The sound design by Terry D. Powell is almost nonexistent, except when he saddles one actor with a reverberation device that almost completely garbles his lines. On the other hand, Gretchen Vaughn's costumes create useful tools for the actors. While they don't stick to a specific medieval time and place, they succeed at unifying the fantasy in terms of the play's circles of courtiers, vagabonds and ethereal spirits.

Brian Robertson's ambitious direction must be credited with the overall success of In the Wake of King Death. He gets stellar performances from three actors. These include Elizabeth Byland as the Princess with a feisty, sexy, and alternately quite sincere and strong presence. Timothy Rhoades is a very funny lapsed Catholic monk. The play satirizes many of the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church of the time, satire that is certainly directed at contemporary Christian evangelical, as well. (The production is crammed with comic pratfalls that alternate with the serious thematic content.)

But by far the singular star of this undertaking is Adam Bass as the minstrel. He is the only actor totally at home with the play's difficult language. He has a wonderfully expressive voice, flexible and energetic movement and, as a man who claims to have shtupped the princess 17 times in two days, he's not hard on the eyes, either. He sings well, too, bringing down the house in his final comic guitar number,

Chuck Spoler's creative imagination and witty dialogue and hard-core contemporary issues thoroughly inhabit this play. I recommend taking a chance on this production. The script needs greater plot focus as well as clarity of dialogue, but that's because it's a work in progress. While it might be too cerebral and arcane for some, I predict that In the Wake of King Death will be a big hit someday in a more professional venue. If you go to NKU's production, you can say that you saw it first in Greater Cincinnati. Grade: B+

Battered & Betrayed: The Aaronsville Woman

The 7,000-year-old skeleton of a battered female teen might seem, at first glance, to be the title character in Stephen Spotswood's The Aaronsville Woman, which is being given world premiere performances through April 22 as part of the13th biennial Y.E.S. Festival of new plays. (YES stands for Year End Series as well as an affirmative attitude toward untried scripts.)

But the skeletal remains dug up behind a church in a decaying Pennsylvania coal town are less central to Spotswood's tale of multiple betrayals than is Eve, who is played by two strong women in overlapping narrative layers. April Leonhard is teenaged Evie, the victim of parental abuse who seeks shelter in an emerging lesbian relationship. Samantha Wright is the adult Eve, who ejected herself from the garden of anguish and turned herself into a world-renowned forensic anthropologist.

In one way or another, a number of Aaronsville women — alive and long dead, seen and unseen — are betrayed by people who should love, protect and respect them. Already emotionally battered by a spineless father (Josh Bates), Evie/Eve's violent, alcoholic mother (unseen) scalds her daughter's hands when Evie's lover Samantha (Alisha Perry) betrays their relationship by revealing it. Then Samantha betrays Evie again by deserting her in the hospital emergency room. Twenty years later, Eve is invited back to Aaronsville to evaluate the ancient bones. She returns, only to find herself used and betrayed all over again — once again by her self-pitying father, then by the adult Sam (Elizabeth Worley) who has turned into a Bible-thumping pastor seeking a forgiveness she ill deserves. Eve is most flagrantly betrayed by university professor Phillip (Warren Bryson) who attempts to use the bones, and Eve's renown, to save his career and shore up support for his academic program.

Even the bones of the nameless, long dead girl are betrayed, she most pitifully of all.

Spotswood's layered, mutually metaphoric story telling, simultaneously revealing the harmed, angry child with the boiled hands and the successful adult with the burned soul, is mostly successful, if a little soapy and seriously melodramatic. It's helped by tense, focused performances from all hands, particularly the two Eves, most particularly Leonhard. Set in appropriately stark ugliness by scenic designer Ronald Shaw, the production is lit with some atmospheric sensitivity by Terry D. Powell and underpinned with a pop/folk soundtrack assembled by Anna Alex. It is hindered by having two performances (Bates' and Worley's) slip over the top into shrill, scenery-chewing rant in Act II. It is further hindered by blackouts that are too frequent and too long, the first coming barely three minutes into Act I. Spotswood's play is cinematic in nature with scenes and time frames overlapping. It needs to be played with fluid cohesion. This production is almost as fractured as the scattered bones on the table downstage left.

Northern Kentucky University faculty member Teresa De Zarn makes her directorial debut with Aaronsville. To her debit must go the production's jerkiness and inability to develop a rising forward motion, as well as the failure to tame some histrionic excess in her actors. However, to her credit falls the dramatic integrity and intensity achieved in certain individual scenes — the joy with which Evie and Samantha explore their young affection and the angered final confrontation between Eve and Phillip. Grade: B-

Bewildering Satire: The Chester County Automaton(s)

Writing a successful comedy is one of the biggest challenges in contemporary theater. Witness the dearth of such new works appearing on stages in New York and elsewhere. So when the folks who select scripts for the biennial Y.E.S. Festival at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) found one that satirized conservative Christians, they all seemed to think they had a winner. They were all the more surprised — and pleased — when they learned that The Chester County Automaton(s) had been submitted under a pseudonym by a current NKU student, Brad Cupples. In the Y.E.S. Festival's 26 years, this represents the first time a student work has been selected and produced.

I wish I could say the result was better. Cupples, a senior at NKU majoring in playwriting, has no doubt found this to be a learning experience, which has always been the fundamental intention of the Y.E.S. Festival. The chance to work with a cast of NKU students and a director (NKU faculty member Mary Jo Beresford) has undoubtedly let him see where the play works and where it needs work. I wish that more time and a firmer hand had been applied to this discursive text. While The Chester County Automaton(s) has an intriguing premise, this production demonstrates a script that still needs a lot of work.

We open with a half-dozen characters, members of the First Uniform Church of Perpetual Joy and Humility, in a mounting state of hysteria. They've learned that a local scientist-inventor Doctor Metternich (Will Drane) has proposed the creation of an "automaton," a computer that might function as a human being. (Why a reasonably urbane scientist is working within walking distance of this seemingly rural church is never explained.) Their outrage that a man is trying to recreate "the miracle of creation." While the pastor (Michael Stone) seems to be a voice of relative reason, his parishioners are swept up by paranoia. The only opposition is voiced by the pastor's teenaged son, Grayson (Matt Lerza), but he's completely ignored. They're visited by a mysteriously apocalyptic character Captain Swing (Nick Vannoy) who chastises their foolishness.

Grayson visits the local hospital to do some volunteer work and meets Lisa (Beth Kovarik), a vamp of a candy-striper who decides she wants him, despite his unfounded passion for a sad case of a freakish patient Mary (Ricky William Glore), the daughter of Captain Swing. All this eventually ties back to the parishioners — undoubtedly meant to be seen as mindless "automatons" — and their mad desire to stop scientific progress, but it's an arduous path down a road inspired by The Crucible through the filter of Neil Simon. It culminates with an inexplicable murder and a suicide bomb from left field; in an epilog, the pastor seems to be possessed by Lisa the vamp.

Cupples' bewildering tale is meant to poke fun at Christian conservatives and paranoia over scientific progress. (At a talkback following the April 14 performance, he said his theme is "the danger of blindly following your emotions and your faith.") That's a promising topic, especially in this day and age. But making incidental jokes about pancake breakfasts and having characters lapse into bad language and worse behavior does not make for a coherent commentary on the foibles of conservative behavior.

I wish some of the teachers and theater professionals at NKU had taken the time to give Cupples' script more shape and starch. He has a gift for dry wit (as evidenced in an amusing scene in which the pastor tries to make a point with a parable about three grasshoppers that his parishioners keep twisting to mean other things), but The Chester County Automaton(s) needs a great deal more work if it's going to hit home with an audience beyond NKU. Grade: D

More information is available at www.nku.edu/~theatre/YES.htmlPerformances of the three shows selected for the 13th biennial Year-End Series (Y.E.S. Festival) at Northern Kentucky University continue through Sunday, April 22. For more information including a schedule of performances, call 859-572-5464 or go to: YES Festival