Chicago Theatre Review
Lies and Deception in Wisconsin
The Black Slot – Aston Rep
Any regional theatre plans its calendar of events with a specific budget that will support a finite number of productions. Often the company selects specific plays to coincide with a holiday, a commemorative event or to celebrate a particular playwright. Such is the case of this small Wisconsin theatre company who’s in the throes of selecting a new roster of productions, trying to meet the deadline for printing their new season brochure for their subscribers.
Beth is a dramaturg, fresh out of Yale, and eager to help the theatre company, for whom she works, with their play selection. One of her jobs is to read new scripts by aspiring playwrights and Beth has found one exciting, original drama that stands out from the rest. She tries to convince Pam, the theatre’s artistic director, that this new play would be a great fit for this regional theatre company. Pam is reluctant to take a chance on the young playwright, even though she professes to be interested in producing new works by promising writers. Pam’s reason for not wanting to produce this terrific, new script is that Tim, the playwright in question, is African American. Pam’s already decided to do an August Wilson play during February, the theatre’s “black slot.” She argues that there’s only room for one African American play in her company’s limited season and for economic reasons she needs to offer her ticket buyers known commodities.
Beth secretly meets with Tim and explains Pam’s confounding decision. After a couple of dates, the two young people discover they share more than simply a professional interest; they find they’re falling in love. Eventually Tim and Beth decide to trick Pam by playing into her obsession with known playwrights, and for presenting a single African American play per season. Tim confesses that, before the great playwright’s death, he’d been an intern for August Wilson. As such, he received confidences and notes about a new play that Wilson had planned to write before he passed. Together the couple decide to craft their own play, based upon the notes Wilson left to Tim, and to submit it to Pam for consideration. Once she gushes over this monumental find, they plan to reveal to Pam how she was tricked and prove her shallowness. However, that’s not the way the scheme plays out.
This world premiere by Warren Hoffman, himself a dramaturg and literary manager, has a fascinating premise. With theatre companies becoming ever conscious of being more inclusive, both in their casting and in their season of productions, this new play is very topical. The themes and characters are interesting and important, but some of the elements of this production don’t support the script.
One of the problems is a curious choice Hoffman makes to have the scripts sitting on the shelves in Beth’s cluttered office actually talk. It’s as if the seriousness of this play suddenly shifts gears and we’re now watching a comic episode of “The Muppet Show.” While clever, Hoffman’s conversations between the dramaturg and a collection of unwanted plays are strangely funny and bizarre. It almost makes Beth seem a little crazy.
Another problem with this play is the need for several different locales. Much of the two hour production is taken up with moving wagons of furniture and set dressing in, out and around the small Raven Theatre stage. The play would flow much better if a flexible unit set were used, allowing the characters to simply enter and exit each scene, perhaps carrying a few necessary hand props. Less almost always proves to be more and, while director Derek Bertelsen has choreographed the moving set pieces as best he can, the drama loses its impact and becomes more about changing scenery.
The performances by the four actors is uneven. The best performance comes from the actor with the least amount of stage time. Linsey Falls is very natural and commanding as Clifford, the representative for the August Wilson Foundation. He offers a smart, realistic character of power, dignity and understanding. Brittany Stock’s portrayal of Beth, the frustrated dramaturg who feels that her boss has made the wrong decision to ignore this important, new dramatic voice, is nicely played by Brittany Stock. Unfortunately, since she has to hold conversations with talking script puppets, she sometimes comes across as forced and artificial with everyone else. Ms. Stock’s challenge of playing Fran to these Kukla and Ollie prop characters makes it difficult for her to maintain any honesty in her scenes with the other characters.
Justin Wade Wilson’s Tim is a bit more realistic in his portrayal, even if his overwhelming enthusiasm makes him seem one-dimensional at times. It would’ve been more interesting, for instance, to see a different, darker, more desperate Tim in the final moments of this play. Right now Wilson plays his exit scene a little too glib. However, the most unrealistic character in this play is Pam, as played by Amy Kasper. The actress, who has created far more three-dimensional characters in past productions, plays Pam with the broad, flat strokes of a sitcom or soap opera actress. If this was director Derek Bertelsen’s intention, it worked. However, Ms. Kasper’s performance is so exaggerated that she seems to be in a different play than the other actors.
A regional theatre’s decision to include original works in their season, along with plays by more established writers, is an admirable move. The less urbane or established the theatre company, the more difficult it becomes to sell of season that includes an unproven, new play. AstonRep’s decision to present Warren Hoffman’s new play, which opens their new season, is certainly a case of life imitating art. While Hoffman’s new play is entertaining and thought-provoking, it might work better with a few cuts and changes. His characters, as portrayed in this world premiere, run the gamut from believably realistic to over-the-top caricatures, as well as everything in between. While the play raises some important questions the answers are based in lies and deception.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 1-October 2 by AstonRep Theatre Company at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-828-9129 or by going to www.astonrep.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.