British, Not Brilliant

An outraged member of the local theatrical community recently confronted me during the intermission of a play and asked if it was true that I, like some other regional critics (who he did not name), was about to begin rating productions using a star system, as do many restaurant and movie critics. I quickly reassured him; this was just another nasty rumor. But after seeing Sharman Macdonald's new play, Shades, staged by the Florida Shakespeare Festival, I began thinking: That star idea has its merits.

For one thing, in today's shorthand, sound-bite society, symbols often communicate more effectively than actual words. They certainly communicate more quickly. Just for this review, I'm going to try it. Shades: H.

Let me back up a bit and explain. On a five-star scale I have only seen one production in South Florida that earned top honors: Tru, brought from Broadway to the Parker Playhouse two years ago, complete with Robert Morse in the title role. In that show, everything A the script, costumes, acting, set, lighting design, direction A was as close to perfection as I've ever witnessed. Quite a few four-star efforts have been produced locally, including this season's Oleanna by David Mamet at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, Mountain at New Theatre, and Papa at the Caldwell Theatre Company. A few productions have been so bad I would assign them a negative rating, the drama equivalent of a celestial black hole. Generally, though, most staged plays I see, like most of life's events, fall somewhere between barely passable and competent.

Shades, the story of a 1950s Scottish housewife left alone with her clinging son and miserable mother, rates only a single star because of a crippling weakness at its core A the script. After watching the Florida Shakespeare Festival's current production, I recalled a recent interview I conducted with the pleasant but somewhat haughty playwright, Sharman Macdonald, who has achieved moderate success and critical acclaim in Britain. She informed me that Peter Shaffer's masterworks, Equus and Amadeus, were "terribly flawed plays." That rather presumptuous judgment, I later realized, bore direct (and ironic) application to Macdonald's own script for Shades: terribly flawed.

Pearl is a widow facing middle age with nothing to show for her life but a bitter mother, a young son who is too attached to her (and she to him), and a dreary house. Though she is only 38 years old, she might as well call it quits and hang herself from the rafters, so unforgiving are the social mores of that place and time. The action of the play develops from her date with a respectable suitor named Callum. The evening out assumes a sense of last-chance desperation as Pearl's mother warns that either Callum proposes marriage that very night or else the old bitch moves in with her daughter and they all rot together.

Sometimes I think the British would benefit from Prozac piped into their water supply along with the fluoride. Macdonald's characters offer ample evidence; all of them are miserable, resentful, and capable of mustering only the slightest wisp of hope. Pearl's date, of course, ends badly, although it is never clear why. Callum's character and his relationship to Pearl are sketched so thinly as to lack any semblance of cause and effect. Why does he desire Pearl and then reject her just because she tells him what he already knows -- that she still loves her dead husband?

Similar questions surround Pearl's dreary mother, Viole. Why is she so relentlessly nasty? Why does she terrorize her daughter? Macdonald provides no answers; her script intentionally seems to be striving for obtuseness, as if that would somehow lend it artistry. It does not. It simply decreases the chances that the play will evoke any emotional response from its audience.

The only clearly delineated dynamic among the characters -- rendered in agonizingly repetitious detail -- is the nearly conjugal relationship between Pearl and Allan, her ten-year-old son. Act one (which seemed to last as long as the construction on I-95) has Pearl preparing for her evening with Callum and attempting to convince Allan that she should date grownup men instead of spending all her time with him, as she normally does. Mom and son spar, kiss, dance, battle, et cetera, et cetera, and the same points are made at least five times.

That sort of overwriting is matched only by the script's woeful lack of wit, humor, or any other redeeming literary graces that might help justify the abundant dialogue. I'm afraid the only people capable of being deceived by such tedium are those who fervently believe that everything the British produce is brilliant.

Playwright Macdonald seems to be suggesting that boys who grow up too close to their mothers are liable to develop an unnatural interest in such things as lipstick. (At least I think that's what she's suggesting; again, her ideas are smothered in obfuscation.) In fact Macdonald had cryptically told me earlier she got the idea for the play after a friend died of AIDS. I pondered this revelation after seeing Shades. Was she really attempting (in her mind if not in the actual play) to foreshadow Allan's future homosexuality by describing a claustrophobic, codependent relationship with his mother? If so, Macdonald would do well to broaden her reading, as current research into the subject of sexual preference is leaning away from Freud and closer to some form of genetic predisposition.

Director Barbara Lowery entices generally good performances from the cast, but she stages the piece with an awkward and contrived hand, leading the actors to move excessively and often without purpose. That said, the cast itself isn't bad at all, which is why Shades at least earns its single star. Adam Ohren as Allan is a bit stiff, but mostly likeable and honest. Joi Staton does an admirable job bringing to life the mother from Hell. In the most substantial role, Ellen Beck as Pearl grows on you. She may have a tendency to overdo it when given the chance (and this script is bursting with opportunities), but at the same time she's believable and often quite touching. Beck reminds me of Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino during their best moments: hyperactive emoting leavened with enough skill to make you suspend disbelief.

Now it's time to bestow my star rating on the production company, the Florida Shakespeare Festival. Despite the group's expressed desire for quality and professionalism, the Shades opening night deserves the dreaded black hole. Before the show began, audience members were reassigned or allowed to change to different seats, which was partially responsible for the show's being delayed more than 30 minutes. And the intermission lasted more than a half-hour. I wouldn't mention these if it weren't the third time I've experienced opening-night chaos at this venue.

Artistic director Rose McVeigh recently asked me how her theater company might be improved. In addition to correcting the problems cited above, I would add this: Choose plays that enlighten and entertain, and don't hesitate to enlist the services of an experienced dramaturg (or literary manager) in making those choices. Everyone benefits when wise counsel initiates the selection of contemporary dramas of the highest quality.

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