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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


"Under Milk Wood"

Reviewed by Carl A. Rossi

"UNDER MILK WOOD" by Dylan Thomas
directed by Mitchell Sellers

Ensemble:
Robert Astyk, Jayk Gallagher, Jeff Gill, David Gross, Michael O’Connor, Jessica Burke, Jenny Gutbezahl, Lindsay Joy, Elizabeth Wightman

Boston has a brand-new theatre company she can instantly be proud of: Ablaze Theatre Initiative, and they have hit the bull’s eye with their maiden effort: Dylan Thomas’ UNDER MILK WOOD, beautifully staged by Mitchell Sellers. The house was barely one-quarter full on the night I attended; I now take to the streets to proclaim both the company’s birth and its excellence and, oh, Good People of Boston, do come and bid it welcome!

Dylan Thomas’ loving, laughing ‘play for voices’ is set in Llareggub, a Welsh coastal town, spanning one spring day from dawn to dark. (Psst! Spell the town’s name backwards.). The dotty yet endearing townspeople – lusty or repressed, gossipy or silenced, life-affirming or life-denying – go about their antlike business; there is no plot, in the traditional sense – if you must root around for theme or moral, there’s always the Reverend Jenkins’ sunset prayer: ‘We are not wholly bad or good / Who live our lives under Milk Wood, / And Thou, I know, wilt be the first / To see our best side, not our worst.’ Though Mr. Thomas originally wrote UNDER MILK WOOD as a radio play for the BBC, its first performances were readings held in New York in 1953 (with a cast of six, including Mr. Thomas himself), shortly before his death. (I once listened to a recording of Mr. Thomas and his cast – I remember the performance as being stubbornly wedded to the page.) Is the existing script a final draft? Its rampant adjectives could do with a trim (“the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea”); still, this is Mr. Thomas’ masterpiece as well as being one of my favorite plays.

How to stage this unique, hearty yet fragile work, where the emphasis is on Voice, not Action? Its characters are no deeper than slides flashed onto a screen – they suddenly appear, then dart away; too many bodies clumping about or a piling up of images would only pull apart the play’s gliding lyricism. Other the other hand, Mr. Thomas’ poetry cries out for gesture and movement, not confinement behind a podium. Mr. Sellers and his design team – Jill MacFarlane (set), Rafael Jaen (costumes), Brian Ratliff (lights) and Haddon Kime (sound/original music) – have wisely refrained from presenting UNDER MILK WOOD as a traditional procenium arch production -– Lord, all those countless blackouts! Instead, by their stressing the artificiality of the play’s structure – a world conjured up in words alone – and by mingling his actors with the audience, Mr. Sellers & Company have paradoxically brought that world to teaming life.

Enter the Tremont Theatre’s auditorium, and you’ll find the playing area transformed into a theatre in the round. Ms. MacFarlane has given us patches of a town – a sandstone floor; a cobblestone street; a beach; a bit of wharf with a mired boat at its side. You may suddenly come face to face with “First Voice” or “Captain Cat” and think you’re intruding upon their warm-ups; but, no, they are already in costume and are strolling about the playing area. More and more of the costumed actors appear, also smiling and strolling about – they might even lead you to your seat and discuss the show you’re about to see. By the time the lights dim, the barriers between actors and audience have been removed -– the audience is now a part of Llareggub.

How shall I describe Mr. Sellers’ wonderful production? A radio show performed by commedia clowns, complete with their own sound effects? A ballet where the performers recite as well as dance? Whatever it is, Mr. Sellers’ concept succeeds brilliantly, and if I wax over his seamless entrances and exits, ‘tis because those are so often the least of a director’s concerns. Here, the multiple scenes unfold – yes, unfold – one after another: a character will finish his or her scene, then the First or Second Voice will move to another area where other characters have already assembled – focusing the audience’s attention – and discretely bow out to allow them their turn. The effect is cinematic, with the Voices acting as hand-held cameras – and done without blackouts or pushing bits of scenery about. Directors of Shakespeare, take note – this concept, though old, can seem radically New again!

The evening is a triumph for Mr. Sellers, but he needed more-than-competent players to make his concept work – and he has them: five men and four women adept at both movement and voice, endlessly inventive at characterization, and choreographed to within an inch of their lives (no aimless wanderings here). Some may not move or declaim as well as others, but Mr. Sellers orchestrates them all so skillfully that not once does anyone tear through the fabric (though the Welsh dialects range from fine to non-existent). My one quibble – and ‘tis a wee one -– are his narrators, the First and Second Voices: the former not only likes his drink (his first gesture), at times he’s as odd as the rest of the townspeople; and, for some reason, the latter (a woman) sports knee-high boots and a riding crop – why? And if I was disappointed by the Polly Garter and Mr. Waldo songs, ‘tis only because I’ve been spoiled by the jolly music composed by Elton John and Andy Leek for the 1988 studio cast recording (long, long out-of-print). But these are mere crumbs that I brush off a well-laden table.

Warm, frizzy Jenny Gutbezahl brings a pleasing earthiness to all of her women, and a pale redhead – Jessica Burke – slides from nymphet to dominatrix with alarming ease. Jeff Gill, the handsome, craggy First Voice/Reverend Jenkins, admirably demonstrates that one can recite blank verse and still be dramatically compelling (quite a contrast to the Bridge Theatre’s Doctor Faustus, where all the world’s a classroom), and when Elizabeth Wightman puts aside her riding crop and lets down her hair, she makes a most statuesque Rosie Probert. Her posthumous duet with Robert Astyk’s sweet Captain Cat (read: Father Christmas) was the one rushed moment of the show, yet Mr. Thomas’ writing is so majestic (“I am going into the darkness of the darkness forever”) that their playing still brought tears to my eyes.

Thus, I am happy – one of my favorite plays has been born into a happy home, and now ‘tis up to you, good friends, to see that it thrives. Remember its director’s name – Mitchell Sellers – for with his newly-formed company, here is one fellow who may truly set our town Ablaze.

"Under Milk Wood" (5 ­- 29 September)
ABLAZE THEATRE INITIATIVE
Tremont Theatre, 276 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 846-7469

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