note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Beverly Creasey
It's not often you get the chance to see rarities like "The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie" or "The Apollo of Bellac". Boston Directors' Lab not only gives you the chance, the do it with style and substance.
Two dozen years ago "Benno" shocked the heck out of theater audiences. It's almost 2001 and its subject matter still does --- but its subject matter isn't new anymore. A zillion movies-of-the-week since have depicted child abuse and teenage suicide. But Director Dyana Kimball gets some extraordinary performances from her actors --- and her changes, like a final horrific barrage of raw meat, bring home the visceral pain in Albert Inaurrato's script. Kimball taps into the psyche of the abused characters here: both Benno and the little-girl neighbor speak with the dull affect common to abuse victims. They can function in the world but they've shut down their feelings.
Mark Sickler as Benno sits quietly on a stool at the very front of the stage (also, too far forward for the back row to see him clearly) while all hell breaks loose --- in flashback/memory --- behind him. Robert Fuller as his belligerent father and Melissa Ann Williams as his angry mother battle it out in a high pitch psychotic frenzy, while Benno is left in the care of his drunken, lecherous grandfather (Kevin McCarthy in a gripping performance). The softer Sickler speaks, the greater the impact of his pain. He transforms himself into a child by folding in his shoulders and tucking his head forward. You find yourself gasping as the tragedy builds, till when Benno says "Nothing can soothe the pain," we fully understand his resolve to end it.
The most powerful scene in the play (Inaurrato borrowed it from the Sardou play that became Puccini's "Tosca") is almost impossible to watch because of the harrowing acts of sex and violence. Bronwen Prosser Armstrong gives such a frightening performance as the little girl it literally takes your breath away. This is one actress you won't soon forget.
Such sadness, such depravity, such despair are communicated in "Benno" that you're in dire need of a comedy at the intermission. So it comes as a great relief to laugh and laugh at the second play of the evening: "The Apollo of Bellac".
Playwright Jean Giraudoux was born in Bellac in 1882, hence the locale in the title. The sun god comes to earth to impart a valuable secret to a discouraged young woman. Giraudoux' witty comedy (like his "Madwoman of Chaillot") pits the common (wo)man against the bureaucracy --- here a stuffy bureau of inventions. The gorgon at the gate, a smarmy clerk played with delightful disdain by John Carozza, won't give her the time of day, let alone an interview with the president.
When the gorgeous god (played with a swagger and a twinkle in his eye by Nathaniel McIntyre) appears to Stacy Fischer as the guileless Agnes, sparks fly. Fischer glows from within (a nifty trick by Lighting Designer Greg Jutkiewicz perhaps?). Once Agnes possesses the power the power to get what she wants, the fun begins: clerk, vice-pres, pres, salesmen all are under her spell. Director Dani Snyder adds a wild rat-race to start the play and set the pace. Once the obstacles --- and men --- start to fall, a hilarious momentum carries the play to its sweet conclusion. Fine performances abound: Courtney Graff is a fabulously haughty and demanding wife, Paul Sarkis is her harried husband, Matthew Ellis is the smitten vice-pres, and Sam Young, Mark Pearson and Hans Schroder all officious company men transformed by Fischer's shimmering presence.