THE LAST SHAKER

THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide


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"THE LAST SHAKER"

note: entire contents copyright 1995 by Larry Stark

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"The Last Shaker"

                            by Michael Downing

                        Directed by Joseph Cambone
                        Set Design by Janie Fleigel
                   Costume Design by Jeffrey S. Burrows
                      Lighting Design by Steve Weiss
                   Produced for TRIANGLE THEATER COMPANY
                  by  Artistic Director Steven O'Donnell

                                  C A S T

            Phillip.................................Bill Mavis
            Brian....................................Craig Houk
            Judith................................Maeve McGrath
            Ward.................................Murray Wheeler
            Ruth/Shaker Sister...................Francine Davis
            Shaker Sister.........................Maura O'Brien
            Shaker Brother/Farmer/Mr. Meager.....Robert Bonotto
            Shaker Brother/Photographer......John Rahal Sarrouf
            Shaker Girl...........................Devery Dolman
    

Michael Downing has written a dense, complicated, powerful play. The world premiere of his THE LAST SHAKER --- on stage at The Triangle Theater Company earlier than expected due to scheduling problems --- is a compelling emotional experience even though it indicates rather than realized the full potential of the script.

Twisting at the center of the story is a 37-year-old gay historian (Bill Mavis) trying to find a funded way to communicate the essence of Shaker life and philosophy at the very point in time that the last Shaker approaches death. Phillip is so involved that he sees and often talks to the ghosts of Shakers long dead, who may exist only in his head. Professionally he fights with Judith (Maeve McGrath) and Ward (a former lover played by Murray Wheeler) who hope to turn the decaying Shaker Community grounds into a soul-less "re-creation" of the past, once death settles the franchise rights.

Personally he fights with his mother (Francine Davis) about giving up history to take command of the family's thriving trouser factory before his aging father dies. And romantically he argues with a one-night-stand become a full-blown, torrid love-affair. Young Brian (Craig Houk) may be genuinely in love, may be genuinely in touch with Shaker sensibility, or may be clinging hysterically to Phillip because he has begun to die of full-blown AIDS.

Ambiguities are as prevalent here as cracklingly ironic quips and whole paragraphs of thought-provoking subtext. The action onstage seems only the surface tenth of a brooding, deeply felt iceberg.

If Director Joseph Cambone had the several extra months Triangle expected for this play --- a scheduled production evaporated in rights wrangles --- aspects of it might be clearer. I suspect Andre Gregory could rehearse THE LAST SHAKER for years. As the run began, I felt Bill Mavis eloquently captured Phillip's confusion, but not his underlying search for meaningful answers. Craig Houk seemed never to decide whether Brian's love of Phillip or his fear of dying was the major motivation. Maeve McGrath and Murray Wheeler seemed to withhold the full power of their arguments in favor of commercializing compromise. Even the Shaker ghosts, symbolizing Phillip's yearning for a spiritual certainty to which to consecrate worldly things, occasionally confused the focus of attention of the stage pictures.

What succeeded, brilliantly, was a genuine grasp of the concatenation of conflicting life impulses that never happen singly, but bounce against one another and fragment Phillip's personality. The little self-reflective barbs embedded in exchanges everywhere raise conversation to a well-observed believability, and the juxtaposition of idea with idea stays in ceaseless flux. And in one astonishing image a Shaker girl's paroxysms of religious ecstacy counterpoint the ecstacies of homosexual love, concentrating the essence of the conflict.

As a gay theatrical organization of impeccable professional standards --- and cramping physical restrictions in their third- floor 60-seat house --- the Triangle proves with this world premiere that AIDS is not just a gay community tragedy. However, AIDS has forced the gay community into re-evaluations of eternal human problems in glaring contemporary terms. THE LAST SHAKER is another testament to the universality of these problems, and this, I'm sure, is only the first production of this moving play. It is a privilege for Boston to witness its beginnings.


THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide


MARQUEE | CURTAIN | USHER> | INTERMISSION |