By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
But to ignore dramatic action in the American theater of the 21st century is as risky as making borscht without beets. Co-writers Theresa Chavez, Portillo and Alan Pulner gamble everything on the integrity and resonance of their ideas. That this one-hour play, with videography by Janice Tanaka, is so affecting is a testament to any number of things: snappy performances, the force of the authors’ intelligence and wit, their potent lyrical sense, and director B.J. Dodge‘s remarkable ability to carve a theatrical shape out of the event.
That Tom dons a black cape to morph into Sor Juana’s persecutor plays as a rather uncharitable comment upon his marriage to Barbara. Thank goodness Wilcox brings his surfer-boy charm to the roles, and for Robinson‘s wry impishness as Barbara, and that Portillo’s performance balances Sor Juana‘s grim, martyred rectitude with a quick smile and elfin dashes across the stage. Thank goodness, also, the play is about something larger than the shape of one marriage: metaphysics micro and macro, for example, and the shapes of history and politics.
In Chekhov’s turn-of-the-century The Seagull, young playwright Konstantin -- in the wake of a disastrous reception of his new poetical play -- remarks upon the need for fresh forms in the theater, forms that can connect disparate spheres of ideas into new insights about who we are and what we‘re doing here. Properties of Silence has to be the kind of play he was talking about.
Carolee Shoemaker’s direction of Doctor Faustus on the Knightsbridge Theater‘s bare stage is, in contrast, an entirely retro affair, with a kind of antique charm. Imagine stepping into a 19th-century combination rep, where the supporting players are on staff while the company has imported the star. Bacquie does the kind of take on Faustus that Olivier did with Hamlet -- in style, at least. It’s a blustery performance, beautifully spoken to every last consonant, that leaves the actor drenched in sweat -- declamatory to the point of parody, but in the 19th century that might not have been a problem.
I found myself relishing the words, and believing not a single iota of the emotions by which they were propelled. Michael Kellick tries a laid-back Mephistopheles, probably an attempt at comedic counterpoint; instead, it lands him in some play by Sam Shepard. Yet there he stands in Elizabethan garb, slumping and galumphing, rolling his eyes at Faustus‘ pristine posture and articulation. (At least Abbott and Costello were of the same world.)
Then there are the young supporting players, whose earnest attempts at slapstick wind up splattered on the floor. Redeeming moments come from Ellen Marie Andrews’ Helen of Troy, a creeping monument holding a mask inches from its face; she has no words, but Andrews knows how to move across a stage with what they call presence.
The Knightsbridge is a tiny basement venue, and it‘s regrettable that somebody thought the company could do justice to a legend of this magnitude with the actors virtually bumping their heads on the ceiling. Doctor Faustus is a play that needs room to breathe. Still, Shoemaker’s endeavor, far from slovenly, is well-paced, and pays attention to Renaissance detail -- masks and costumes, impressive special effects (a chopped-off head, the aforementioned skeleton).
Yet the production‘s feel is so cheesy. The walls are lined with black drapes, behind which a black gloved hand occasionally protrudes to deliver a needed prop or to flip the page of a book Faustus is reading. This is partly in jest, to ward off pretentiousness -- gestures that confuse flippancy with wit. Marlowe’s lush drama really can‘t absorb these without taking on the satirical edge of a play by Christopher Durang or Woody Allen. Which raises the questions of why they wanted to stage Marlowe’s play at all, and what they thought they were doing with it.