(oh my god I am so) THIRST(y)
nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
October 23, 2010
There is a potentially exasperated quote about Eugene O'Neill by J.L. Styan that I love: "... a playwright ready to try any device, convention, or style from the history of the theatre past or present." He's right. Now, imagine that wild range of willingness coupled with essentially being a well known actor's kid with something to prove and you've got early O'Neill. In Little Lord Productions' current piece at Incubator Arts, the playwright appears to have met his match. This company is easily as willing to try any device to challenge both the text and the audience. Overall the piece works, certainly achieving their stated goal to "uproot the familiar and challenge audience assumptions," along with providing smart design and some very engaging images.
In Thirst, O'Neill is storming it up in the indie theater scene of Provincetown Playhouse, hell-bent on out Chekhov-ing Chekhov and mesmerized by the recent sinking of the Titanic. Set in a lifeboat, the play depicts three surviving passengers who are slowly wasting away in the immensity of the sea and wondering if rescue will come. There are sharks in the water and the sun burning them in an existence of increasing nullity. As they talk, if for no other reason than to confirm they are still alive, a hierarchy is set up among the Gentleman, the Dancer, and the Negro Sailor. Oh yes, the young playwright has stacked the deck not only with an abundance of words but brought on both a social and a racial element—which he further compounded by playing the role himself in blackface.
In (oh my god I am so) THIRST(y) Little Lord plunges into the fullness of ideas with even more of their own, tossing the piece around like a beach ball. Even where it doesn't always connect with the audience there is always something to watch. There are indeed sharks (the very fine Donya K. Washington and an understated Stephanie Weeks), and they even have their own pool table. The Sun (Tonya Canada) is omnipresent as well as being fabulously attired as she lounges on her lido deck in the sky. These three largely silent characters are not only cleverly costumed (by Sydney Maresca), but their active, evaluating watchfulness provides a positive anchor to the tempest of words crashing on extended silences. They help contain and focus the production wonderfully.
The Gentleman (who may have a somewhat shady past and is well played by Michael Levinton) is gradually losing his grip in as elegant a manner as is possible—which is not very in the midst of a babbling dancer and the randomly intermittent singing of an otherwise ominously silent sailor. The dancer is in an odd position of not being moneyed but having some fame, being a woman but perhaps not quite a lady, and seeming to have nothing in her arsenal to survive. As adapter/director, Levinton has split the part in three—Dancer 1 is a sunburnt, somewhat foolish dancer with delusions that include grandeur (well set up by Polly Lee), who morphs into the more excessive and overblown Dancer 2 (played with relish by the talented Laura von Holt), and ultimately spirals into the elegiacally mad Dancer 3 (with an almost 1930's sensibility by Hugh Sinclair). Increasingly bizarre, it works and goes a long way towards visually playing out the growing dementia with a flourish—these are not people who simply fade away.
Similarly but not as engagingly, Levinton has split the Sailor character in three. Played first by a woman in drag (amusingly by Megan Hill), the character of O'Neill sets up the skewing of theatrical reality while drunkenly stumbling but all too soon toddles off to sleep with the Sun. The part is then "played" by, respectively, a stuffed panda and a light-up lawn Santa. It has an initial amusement, but as the role's dialogue increases it becomes increasingly irritating that the production itself has entirely marginalized it. Any necessary lines are delivered from the side by a "stage manager" on a microphone. This choice to go with casting inanimate objects and then having no focal point for the role forces Dancer 3 to essentially argue with herself in a manner that is reminiscent of Smeagol's breakdown in Lord of the Rings. Except that makes it sounds funnier than it was—the result here is instead disconnected and leaves the audience themselves a bit adrift as to how to connect with the piece at this point.
However, overall there is a lot to watch and an enormous amount of cleverness filling this production. My frustration with the inanimate O'Neills notwithstanding, the show is very much worthwhile. Little Lord has assembled a fine cast, who work wonderfully with the very savvy design of Jason Simms, Sydney Maresca, and Simon Cleveland. Together they are plenty to watch, truly and exuberantly trying "...any device, convention or style." They do give their playwright a wild ride for the money.