entire contents copyright 1997 by Larry Stark
Set and Lighting Design by Terry N. Unit
Stage Manager Pat Yates
Miss A..........Karen Marek
Is there such a thing as an honest charlatan?
David Mamet's short play "The Shawl" takes people backstage in the psychic business, showing John first giving a convincing first-reading to a troubled Miss A, then contemptuously exposing his tricks to Charles, a young trick who thinks he might like to learn the business --- if it's profitable enough, quickly enough.
Paul Dervis' Theatre Redux does this minimalist production in a wood-panelled cube of a room in the 1st Parish Church in Cambridge, with four small leko's providing either spot or area lighting, and 36 folding-chairs packed around the playing area almost as an afterthought. The emphasis is entirely on the acting.
Even when trashing his own profession, Jack Flynn as John projects a kind of old-fashioned integrity, insisting the job should always be done right, and that greed gets you nowhere. In a sense he acts a man whose job description could easily be "actor" and, much like the Theatre Redux itself, this man insists that doing the job right is the reward; whatever money appears is extra.
But Joseph Garland plays a much younger man fully conscious of how much his oily black ringlets and whip-thin body are worth, and quite willing to force his new mentor to rush things if it could mean a big, quick killing -- and he knows both the conspirators think he's worth his price.
Karen Marek is the marked down prey, the intended victim, wary and credulous by turns, wooed by the gimmicks yet driven to seek an answer from her dead mother while still testing the oracle.
Paul Dervis has seen to it that his actors actually converse, with eye-contact and physical reactions enhancing the dialog, but the tone and the pace are kept very low -- so low that occasional pauses or hesitancies could as well be well-covered botched lines. A slightly faster rhythm here and there might also emphasize what could be quick titters of comic relief in an otherwise effective evening. Also, there is a place where John in his act slips the tiniest bit of a brogue into the lilt of his lines because he is supposedly controlled by a spirit, yet the brogue wafts away all too soon.
The set by Terry N. Unit strings the playing-area out in front of the audience, with the seances off on far stage-right. This means that Miss A's widening eyes at several surprising points in John's clever monologues are visible to only a third of that audience, while in other scenes John seated at an upright piano against the far-left wall must act -- and does so quite effectively -- with his shoulder-blades.
The most important thing about the show, though, is that these people all react to one another, by expression and gesture when not in words, and each one of them projects a believable human being, so that the text has meaning. Thus, despite its brevity, "The Shawl" still echoes after the show is done.