note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
Boston Theatre Works’ policy of “cutting edge theatre” is better justified when staging contemporary works (THE LARAMIE PROJECT) than when its tampers with the past (Shakespeare; OUR TOWN). Here, then, is its second offering of the season: a decent-enough prison drama, followed by a delightful bit of fluff that will vanish after a few performances.
Shawna DuChamps … Bobbie Steinbach
John Brennan … Fred Robbins
Sam Fried … Peter Papadopoulos
Bobby Reyburn … Barlow Adamson
Bruce Graham’s COYOTE ON A FENCE weighs the pros and cons of the death penalty, focusing on a condemned Odd Couple somewhere in the American South: John Brennan is a political activist, airing his views in his paper, “The Death Row Advocate”. Bobby Reyburn is a white supremacist, trained by his uncle to hate blacks and Jews (the play’s title comes from a lesson the uncle had taught him). Knowing he will soon be executed, Bobby wants John to write his obituary --- thus, John reluctantly gets to know his neighbor for journalism’s sake. “Weighs” is the key word here: Mr. Graham hopes to spark some drama by striking two opposites together but ends up merely balancing the scales --- John is charming, smart and literate; Bobby is the redneck who can barely write. John plays chess by mail; Bobby does animal imitations. John’s crusade against the death penalty has attracted both PBS and a reporter from The New York Times; Bobby has spent six years in quarantine and has come out with sharpened senses (he can smell his cell’s last inhabitant: a black child molester befriended by John). John vows to go down fighting; Bobby serenely awaits his execution, ready for the Aryan afterlife. Even their murders are from different corners: John, in an addict’s rage, kicked a drug dealer to death; Bobby, with Nazi coolness, torched a black church, killing the congregation he trapped within. And so on, to the end --- the scales stay balanced even in death. I must add that the prison genre has been run to earth; we’ve seen so much of it that its patented trademarks --- mob voices that swell and ebb in protest; steel doors that reverberate when slammed shut; faces pressed against the bars, listening when a man goes to meet his Maker; the triumph of spirit over flesh --- have lost their power (even Ruth Neeman’s serviceable set is Basic Prison; there’s really not much you can do with bars, bunks and lidless toilets); the genre has become mere entertainment (OZ owes its legs to its steamy sex scenes; CHICAGO brilliantly dances on its own grave). Mr. Graham contributes nothing that hasn’t already been done before (other than a female guard in a male prison?). “A story ripped from today’s headlines”, reads the BTW press copy. How old is Mr. Graham’s newspaper?
Nancy Curran Willis has directed an obedient production; obedient in the sense that she has taken Mr. Graham at his word, no questions asked. Barring some moments, this COYOTE reaches an early plateau and stays there sans snap or tension (after all, it’s a countdown to Bobby’s death, with two journalists --- John and Sam (the Times reporter) --- battling over his life). Those moments are when John is reprimanded by Shawna, the all-seeing prison guard: they are wry comrades, each making the best of the situation, and it shocks when Shawna must pull rank to subdue John but she is, after all, the guard and he, the prisoner. The Christmas scene is sweet and touching when John and Bobby exchange gifts through the bars, and Shawna’s final monologue is infinitely sad.
Bobbie Steinbach, that wonderful comedienne with the quivery voice, does an amazing about-face as Shawna, bulldog-tough but guardedly vulnerable, with the conditioned deafness that you find in many a meter maid (though she could do better than wipe her billyclub on John’s legs when it comes to striking him). Fred Robbins is a rich, yeasty actor in the Elizabethan sense --- he’s at his best when he expands in a role --- his John is a caged lion, believable behind a typewriter or in debate but also showing the banked fires within (has Mr. Robbins ever tackled the Bard?). Barlow Adamson has the biggest challenge: he must make Bobby understandable, if not sympathetic, to an audience and he does sans caricature; tattooed on his arms and neck and with one eye out of commission (a clever bit of make-up), Mr. Adamson presents his bigot as a twisted innocent; the only arty touch is when Ms. Willis has him recite his monologues to the audience like a deadpan comic. Peter Papadopoulos is a paper-thin reporter, easily blown away by Mr. Robbins in full roar.
No doubt you, too, will think up your own punch line as to what the parrot says. Mine is “Goddam, whatever YOU said must’ve been a DOOZY!” Should you attend COYOTE ON A FENCE, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
by Maria Irene Fornés
directed by Dani Snyder musical direction/composition by Adam W. Roberts sound design by K. Bud Durand
Molly … Liz Hayes
Jim … Ozzie Carnan, Jr.
Mack … David Rabinow
Hanging Woman … Erin Bell
Jessica Burke … Hanging Woman
Ginny Moore … Hanging Woman
John … Brian Gallivan
Alberta … Stephanie Biernbaum
The aforementioned fluff, Maria Irene Fornés MOLLY’S DREAM, is a delightful one-hour surprise (even more so when you consider who produced it). Ms. Fornés’ surreal comedy/musical is the first in a new late-night performance series, BTW AFTER HOURS; who knows what Fate and/or Jason Southerland has in store down the road, but the series has gotten off to the best of starts. :)
In scribbling about last year’s production of FEFU AND HER FRIENDS (Industrial Theatre), I wrote, “[Ms. Fornés] is an extremely clever playwright both childlike and sophisticated deftly bouncing words off craniums in a style part Lewis Carroll, part vaudeville.” MOLLY’s words also bounce, many of them to music. The original score was lost in the early 1970s; composer Adam Roberts and sound designer K. Bud Durand have supplied their own accompaniments and borrowed from several pop icons. None of these “songs” would ever make it onto the charts, but MOLLY’S DREAM is definitely tap-able stuff --- a refreshing alternative to batboys, anthems and such. :)
Molly works as a waitress in a saloon. She spies Jim, a handsome stranger, and falls into a dream where he re-appears as a bored swinger with three adoring women (here, a maid, a nurse and a cop) clinging to him like white on rice. Jim breaks Molly’s heart and she is transformed into Marlene Dietrich, sardonically commenting on the ways of men. Stir in an unlucky-in-love bartender, a cowboy vampire and a 27-year-old tap-dancing child, and enjoy --- the college students who packed the auditorium certainly did. :)
Roses and more roses to all involved, especially to Dani Snyder for her witty direction and near-choreography (and maneuvering her cast through the COYOTE set); to Liz Hayes as Molly --- I swear she grew curves when she put on her top hat; to Brian Gallivan, a hilarious blend of John Wayne, Bela Lugosi and Elvis; and to Jessica Burke, one of the most bewitching young actresses in Boston. A cool feline, Ms. Burke charmed me in last year’s UNDER MILK WOOD (Ablaze Theatre Initiative) and now she’s done it again. :)
Come to think of it, Ms. Snyder and her cast could form the core of an excellent production of Ms. Fornés’ zany masterpiece PROMENADE (music: Al Carmines). Any takers? :)