The University of Rhode Island's first production of the year is Craig Lucas' "Small Tragedy". It is a play featuring an ensemble of six leading actors playing diverse characters, some of whom are involved personally prior to auditioning for a production of "Oedipus Rex". These three young men and three young women rehearse this adaptation of Sophocles' tragedy in Boston. As the production evolves, the characters impact on one another, a marriage and a friendship are strained and new relationships are born as th actors rehearse the play and alternately discuss matters of justice, denial and the acceptance of responsibility while flirting and amusing one another and us with their quirky inter changes and actions through opening night and beyond. The adjective to describe Lucas' play within a play is correct. It's not a symphonic modern Greek tragedy; in fact, at first, it seems to merely use the play within to jumpstart a witty comedy about well-educated but still more foolish than wise men and women. Make no mistake about it, however, Lucas is using the familiar play within a play genre to deal with symphony-sized issues and the small tragedies of his chamber piece's sextet smartly and provocatively parallel the great Greek tragedy that brings them together. The show is a passionate and probing drama where the innocence of Americans is mirrored against the European experience and as the actors become friends and lovers, we witness how the themes of the Greek tragedy merge with some truths about the Bosnian War to impact irrevocably on their personal lives and on our psyches as we watch them go from life in Boston in the mid 1990's to New York City a few years later. It is here that it becomes a gut wrenching experience that leaves the whole audience crying uncontrollably. Director Bryna Wortman not only stages the show beautifully but casts it perfectly with her six performers leading to a spontaneous standing ovation as their reward at the close of the show.
The show starts straightforwardly enough with auditions held in a Cambridge rehearsal studio and learn that the production is a comeback from failed, high flying Hollywood careers for the co-directors, Nathaniel and Paola. The auditioning actors also unpack some of their personal baggage. Each actor has their moment to shine in this show. Benjamin Gracia manages to make us like Nathaniel (who at first seems like a tyrannical director) even as we laugh at his more artsy than artful directorial pronouncement and the right wing political pronouncements that befit his full name, Nathaniel Townsende III. Kira Arnold taps into the pain beneath the shrewish glibness of Nathaniel's partner, Paola, whose health problems (she's HIV positive) he blames for their abrupt downward career spiral. As the troubled directors, separately and together, guide the actors through their roles, the complexities of the off stage relationships merge with those of the ancient drama. Jon Paul Rainville and Autumn Gillette find a lot of humor in their respective roles: he as a naive young man named Christmas who plays the seer, Teiresias and falls madly in love with Nathaniel; she as Fanny an AA graduate and, in the Oedipus story, half of a two-woman chorus (Kira being the other half). Fanny is woefully uninformed about world events (the subject of Bosnia prompts her to ask "Isn't there, like. a sort of a war there?") but she has built-in radar for detecting phonies, unlike her friend Jen, the sensitive and appealing Jolie Lippincott, who seems to have an affinity for men who will cause her grief.
Fanny and Jen react quite differently to Hakija (Benjamin Grills), the young Bosnian economics student who turns out to be the group's one gifted actor. A story he tells Fanny about himself and freely admits to being manufactured, leaves her permanently uneasy about who he really is. Jen, on the other hand, is captivated by Hakija's charisma as she plays Jocasta to his Oedipus. Her ultimate decision about dealing with an unpleasant truth that once revealed can never be swept out of sight provides much food for post curtain contemplation. Like Jen, the audience will be unable to resist Benjamin Grills. He gives a powerhouse performance as the tragedy haunted Bosnian for whom his newfound loves, the theater and Jen, mean a new and better future. He is a brutally passionate Oedipus and a sexy, perplexingly unknowable Hajika. (Christmas wants to know whether he is straight, gay or bi, is one example as is the final horrifying dichotomy of his actions during the Bosnian war). His dual characterizations more than deliver the goods in this role. The show which in addition to the strong cast, boasts first rate production values, too. It doesn't matter whether like Jen in her opening remarks, you're left wondering "whose tragedy this is, was" or if it is "simply a very sad thing." Where else can you find laughs, heart-tug, plus fodder for lively post-mortems? With all due respect to director Nathaniel, Craig Lucas has made an ancient classic as timely as today's headlines. So for a top notch drama at URI, be sure to catch "Small Tragedy" before time runs out.