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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
What We May Be
By DL Simmons
What We May Be is a backstage drama, quite literally whenever the stage wings are exposed. The modest plot observes a company of volatile playmakers performing four short one-act plays while reeling from news that it's their final season. Their predicament is writ large as a valentine to struggling theatrical communities everywhere, and the play succeeds in capturing the love-hate bond cast and crew members develop in spite of everything. It's just too bad that Clark's premise, which has the potential to be a broader metaphor, rarely aspires to be more than an inside job.
Within this quartet of one-acts, as well as behind-the-scenes vignettes that bookend and connect the discrete dramas, Clark explores heady themes — vision and writing, and theater as a logical extension of the two. Anyone who's witnessed a beloved art form recede from its heyday, be it jazz or tap or cinema, can relate to the profound sense of loss these people feel as their creative lifeblood drips away. For everyone else — most people — these themes are unlikely to resonate. What's elegiac to a precious few seems elemental to the vast uninitiated.
It's not that a tale about "drama people" can't have universal appeal. Kurt Vonnegut's short story Who Am I This Time? is a sparkling example of just the opposite, where he mines the shyest of love stories from a drab community theater production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Part of What We May Be's problem could be that its actors aren't performing works by Tennessee Williams. We're told that these four playlets are a special encore performance commanded by popular demand, but only one of them (subtitled "Emma's Joney," about a creative writing class) is strong enough to be memorable — and, to be fair, it's a beaut. The remaining one-acts feel underdeveloped, or at least disassociated from the backstage drama, which is the only story we care about. The time Clark could have spent developing her thespians feels squandered on these one-acts, which come across like acting exercises for trying out different accents instead of meditations on theater's death and rejuvenation.
As the company's grand dame and resilient diva, Penny Fuller has a crazy amount of dialogue once she awakens from her catnap coma at play's open. Besides her domineering backstage scenes as Lucinda Royal Scott (what a name!), she also plays the lead in each of the one-acts. Fuller is a gifted actor, clearly capable of delivering a tough Broadway dame in the mold of Katharine Hepburn or Lauren Bacall. She knows how to pull back for effect and when to rip a zinger. On press night, however, she stumbled over too many lines, which probably had less to do with nerves than having to carry the weight of not one but five separate dramas. With too many masks to wear, her true character never crystallizes as a specific human being — though Fuller should consider adding "overwhelmed" to Madame Royal Scott's behavioral profile. It's an organic fit.
The tallish Dee Hoty plays Joan Stern, the troupe's aptly named second banana, and she makes a hearty comic foil for Fuller's compact-sized ball of fire. Where Lucinda is grand and dismissive, Joan is snarky and subversive. They're long-time rivals, fangs permanently bared and ready to throw down over a coveted role for a mature actress. Hoty has the second-largest part, but her stage aura feels equal to the show's star, if not greater.
(Not trying to instigate any real-life backstage rivalry here — honest. But if it happens, as they say, use it in the performance.)
Their four co-stars lend solid support despite struggling with underdeveloped roles: Carson Elrod plays the myopic artistic director, Samantha Hill the visionary stage manager, Carla Duren the ambitious ingénue and Count Stovall the flirtatious senior thespian. And their one-act characters are largely variations of these stereotypes. That they reveal hidden depths at all is a testament to their performances rather than this draft of the script.
The costumes by Laurie Churba actually do a lot of the actors' work for them. A shiny yellow dress, a soft-pink wool hat, flat-heeled suede boots and denim cut-offs are specific, even eccentric wardrobe choices made by three-dimensional characters. Eyeglass frames and a shiny walking stick are equally elegant selections, so a nod to the props peeps as well.
Gregg Edelman's unfussy direction serves the material well, saving theatrical artifice for the one-act plays within the main drama. He makes effective counterpoints, downplaying the manic hustle and bustle in the wings while elevating the onstage dynamics of people who sit still. He's aided in this conceit by scenic designer Randall Parsons' skeletal sets and lighting designer Alan Edwards' non-flashy illumination. They don't sugarcoat the actor's life, nor do they sprinkle any fairy dust over the theatrical realm. It's telling that the play begins and concludes with a ghost light on a bare stage.
What We May Be, the second Kathleen Clark play introduced by Berkshire Theatre Group (the first was In the Mood), is rightly concerned — yet hopeful — about the longevity of regional theater. The characters' plight and their competitive quirks will be familiar to anyone who's spent time in that world. As a conversation-starter for drama aficionados, it scratches the surface. For it to speak to a broader audience, it would need the claws of Mamet.
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What We May Be by Kathleen Clark
Directed by Gregg Edelman
Cast: Penny Fuller (Lucinda Royal Scott) Dee Hoty (Joan Stem) Carla Duren (Colleen Haran) Carson Elrod (Glen Geer) Samantha Hill (Summer Oliver) Count Stovall (Hal Polick)
Scenic Designer: Randall Parsons
Costume Designer: Laurie Churba
Lighting Designer: Alan C. Edwards
Sound Designer: Scott Killian
Running time: 100 minutes; no intermission
Berkshire Theatre Group, Fitzpatrick Main Stage, Stockbridge, MA
From 8/8/19; closing 8/31/19
Reviewed by DL Simmons at August 10 performance
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