Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Shawl (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

At the corner of Heliotrope and Melrose stands a venue called the Moth Theatre. Turns out to be a little startling. One has to look for it! But in the end one can find it--through the alley in back. Nicely, there's parking!

Even more nicely, there's a production of David Mamet's The Shawl underway. Not one of Mamet's best known plays, but something of a gem. The company decided to do something interesting in this case--switching the genders of the characters.

So instead of a Miss A we get a Mr. A (Ryan Surratt, who also directed). He goes to see a spiritualist named Joan (Lili Bordan) in the wake of his mother's death, finding himself astonished with what she seems to know of him. Originally "Joan" was John, a middle aged man trying to keep his younger lover Charles--in this version a young woman called Charlie (Liz Guest).

What we see as the play unfolds is how belief shapes life, not simply in the way we see what we with to see. No, something far more complex. Because when we disagree on belief, what are we left with? More, what happens when facts seemingly contradict what we believe--or at least what we long to believe? Consider--a man with unresolved issues. Permanently unresolved, now that his mother has died. But he does not confront the real issues. Rather, he aims for a different question, asking a medium for an answer from his mother--not what he really wants to know, but what he pretends matters most.

Now consider the medium. Who is a fraud. Or at least has all the skills of a fraud. Yet she evidently has real ethics, considers her tricks and skills in service of something honest, something good.

But she'll break those rules to keep a young lover. Someone who only recently came into her life. And that someone--she'll make demands, flatly refuse to show patience, yet turn out to have her own set of longings. She too wants to believe.

In what?

Therein lies the rub. Because Mamet, like Chekhov, writes with deep and complex subtext. The play only works when and if the cast dive into the complex hints and nuances of these characters--these contradictory, extremely human characters--and bring them to life on stage.

Which is precisely what happens in The Shawl. In theater convention, there's an idea called "the well made play" in which all the plot points are hit, the formulaic complexities and climaxes and unveilings unfold in a measured, workable pattern. This play doesn't do that. It is too real to fit into such a structure. Given the sheer number of stylistic plays I've been seeing lately, it was honestly rather refreshing to watch human beings simply talk on stage, each wanting so much and trying to hide it, as we as a species in this society are wont to do.

This cast dove in and dove deep. Nothing in the text gives anyone but Mr. A--the least important of the three--anything like a specific backstory. Yet Joan and Charlie carried their pasts with them when they came on stage. Each portrayed the emotional habits of a lifetime, habits that brought them together. This might easily have been an ordinary crime drama. If so, the plot would have been simple enough. Either Mr. A is conned or not. If conned, who gets the money? If not, do the criminals escape and/or remain loyal to one another? But The Shawl is not a crime drama, although it remains a drama surrounding what is technically a crime.

But again, close to nothing without actors doing it right. Mediocre performances are the equivalent of singing an entire song off key. We'll all seen these.

Bordan gives the bulk of the lines, which often come across as the verbal equivalent of hand-waving. Yet she also tries to tell people something, something real. That she does it with lies, or the habit of half-truths at least, leaves us with a very complex emotional reaction at the end. We still want to believe. Indeed, I still felt it quite possible she's a real medium at the end. Whether she believes it or not. But then, who's to say my belief is any more valid than hers? Save that I (and the audience) share much of Guest's character's world view, at least in terms of this person and this specific situation. Guest (and Surratt) both masterfully commit one of the greatest skills any actor can show--listening. And, like real human beings, they listen with agendas. How can they not?

Well, actually, plenty of actors do not. But these three do, and the emotional fabric of what they weave on that stage wraps us up in a story we only partially understand.

Like a shawl.

The Shawl plays at Moth Theater Thursdays, Fridays,and Saturdays at 8pm until May 31, 2013. The address is 4359 Melrose (at Heliotrope) Los Angeles CA 90029.

1 comment: