Review: Heartbreak House (Writers’ Theatre)

        
        

Writers’ Theatre unpacks Shaw’s layered comedy-drama

        
        

A scene from George Bernard Shaw's "Heartbreak House", now playing at Writers Theatre.

   
Writers’ Theatre presents
   
Heartbreak House
   
Written by George Bernard Shaw 
Directed by William Brown
at Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court (map)
through June 26  |  tickets: $65  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Staging George Bernard Shaw’s 1919 satire with the expectation that it will carry relevance requires overcoming some steep hurdles. Without an encyclopedic understanding of period social structure, the play can lack gravity. It’s an uneven mix of broad hysterics and droll musings. It’s literary. It’s long.

Martin Yurek and Tiffany Scott in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".Director William Brown clears or at least side-steps those obstacles through his focus on character accessibility and audience immersion, narrowing the gap between what resonates on the page and what functions in presentation. Great care is taken to ease the entrance to the world of the play–literally, at first. Keith Pitts’ scenic and Jesse Klug’s lighting design sprawls from the performance space to the house, stretching the Shotover manor garden as far they can cultivate it. It’s a hypnotic oasis featuring little touches like a delightfully audible pebble walkway, ethereal floating lanterns, and the general comforts of a privileged family. Think a 20th Century Midsummer garden.

But unlike the tightly-wound lovers who dwell in Shakespeare’s forest, Shaw’s well-to-do find no contentment under each others’ spell–only unrequited desires and disillusion. When young Ellie Dunn (Atra Asdou, romanticism embodied, well-cast as the wide-eyed guide) accepts an invitation to her friend’s (Karen Janes Woditsch) home, she discovers and is ultimately overcome by a web of self-consumed entitlements and entangled loves. If there’s any enchantment to be found, it’s in the thought of total liberation from the mythical heartbreak house and its emotionally-deteriorating inhabitants. Here, sleep is just paralysis.

     
Kevin Christopher Fox and Martin Yurek in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw". John Lister, Kareem Bandealy and Karen Janes Woditsch in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".

Writers’ production speaks to what can be unearthed amidst the anguish of love gone awry and the catharsis of reckless abandon. As social commentary, not even a slight update–pushing the story up to WWII–makes the class predicaments entirely identifiable. Well-acted as the performances may be (John Reeger, Janes Woditsch and Tiffany Scott leading the strong ensemble), tedium undercuts several stretches within early scenes. Sex, too, is lacking. Improper seduction perpetuates some of the comedy, and jealousy and wanting perpetuate most of the story–both are dependent on clear sensuality. This Heartbreak could benefit from more. It’s a slow simmer, but by Act III, those shortcomings are easy to forget. Shaw’s skepticism on marriage and relationships progress from era-dependency to something more universal with each act. For all its long-windedness, Heartbreak’s takeaway is the final wordless tableau: a group unified by disappointment, knowing to move on, and looking to the sky for its own destruction.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Karen Janes Woditsch, Martin Yurek and John Reeger in Writers' Theatre's "Heartbreak House" by George Bernard Shaw".

George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House continues through June 26th, with performances Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm and Sundays at 4pm and 8pm. Tickets for all shows are $65, and can be purchased through Writers’ website. Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes, which includes two intermissions. 

     
     

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Review: Resonants’ “The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus”

The Resonants Exhibit the Pageantry of Hell in “The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus”

The Resonants have overreached themselves with this production of The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe.  Director Dan Krall has a special affection for the material, yet he possesses too little directorial experience and too young and raw of a cast to pull off Elizabethan drama. Many of the actors fail to project and articulate their parts. Some changes between scenes are too rudimentarily staged to provide a cohesive arc to the production. Thankfully, a few bright embers shine out.

faustus press picClaire Alden has the strength of stage presence to pull off her cool, jaded, and sagacious Mephistopheles. Galen Murphy-Hoffman delivers an equally sleek and menacing Lucifer, and is great fun, both as the Emperor, with his George W. Bush impression, and a bumbling Pope. Both Avery Armour and Atra Asdou form a charmingly convincing con-artist team as Wagner and Valdes. Nathan Hicks has delightful moments as Robin the Clown. One can only wonder what further comedy improv training could elicit, both for him and for all of Faustus’ comedic moments.

Special mention should be made of the set design, which, despite a kind of spare industrial 80s flavor, still manages to evoke malevolent grandeur through the use of floor-to-ceiling black drapes precisely accented with large red tasseled cords. Even the red-light cross, hung upon the right wall, suggests a presence of evil rather than a source of spiritual comfort on stage.

If anything, it’s the visual storytelling of the production that succeeds in expressing the Elizabethan penchant for pageantry as part of stagecraft. The most evocative moment comes at the end, when the cast executes the horror of Dr. Faustus being dragged down into Hell with all its dark magnificence.

What is most sorely lacking is a strong lead. Nate Burger’s Dr. Faustus is a geeky academic, dipping his toe into monumental choices he can barely realize the ramifications of, until it is too late. He hardly seems the Renaissance ideal of a master of knowledge, which was the hallmark of the age. It is not quite clear that this is a dramatic choice rather than an actor simply struggling to the fill out the part.

Burger’s struggles are just one sign of a production that is out of its depth. This may be the moment that a young company needs to reassess its strengths and its deficiencies, in order to put on works that serve to expand its capabilities. There is enough promise here to encourage such an effort.

Rating: «

The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus
City Lit Theater
1020 W. Bryn Mawr

Runs thought July 12th
Price:$10-$15
for tickets, call886-811-4111
www.theresonants.org