A&E: Familiar faces in a familiar 'Town'

September 24, 2007

It's called a ghost light. Little more than a light bulb on a pole, it's there to keep actors from fumbling around in the dark. And, for the superstitious, it's there to keep the ghosts at bay.

The ghost light is an apt opening and closing image for the Indiana Repertory Theatre's season-opening production of "Our Town," a play whose ghosts in act three remind us of the things we mortals miss. And a play whose light shines without the need for excess adornment. That message seems absorbed into the skin of a terrific cast of actors gathered here. I'd love to have the space to write paragraphs about Priscilla Lindsay's purse-lipped Mrs. Gibbs or the warmth below the pomposity in Charles Goad's Mr. Webb. Mark Goetzinger's Dr. Webb and Ryan Artzberger's troubled Simon Stimson are each heartbreaking in his own way. And Eddie Curry, better known for Beef & Boards musicals, gives fine etching to both the comedic Professor Willard and the resigned Man in Cemetery.

But why is it that I found the Earthbound first two acts so much more moving than anything in the ethereal third?

I've been wrestling with that question since seeing the show and the best I can come up with is that actress Gwendolyn Whiteside is just too 3-D as Emily.

That may sound like an odd criticism, but hear me out.

Whiteside gives the part a depth, a humor, a quirkiness and, yes, a life that I haven't seen in the role before. Problem is, by making Emily so distinct, the character's fate becomes less universal. And the universality of her death is a crucial element of the play.

It doesn't help that Robert Elliott-an otherwise engaging Stage Manager-delivers the Act II wedding comment "once in a thousand times, it's interesting" with a harshness that sours rather than illuminates what will come after.

Unlike other productions, this "Our Town" opens with actors gathered for a reading of the play. Scripts are used in early scenes, as is an on-stage soundeffects person. Actors fill in for livestock and a stage hand (Michael Shelton) is even pulled into playing a part. Rather than call attention to the theatrical artificiality, these choices pull us into the familiar (to most) play. But director Peter Amster-who is able to get wonderful work from his actors and has harnessed a strong design team-seems to abandon his framing device before completing it.

Even so, the first two acts help remind us that, no matter how many visits we take to Grover's Corners, there's still life-our lives-in it.

Elton John's "Aida" gets an effective read at Indianapolis Civic Theatre thanks as much to the savvy behind-the-scenes crew as to the confident performance by Angela Nichols Manlove in the title role.

Ryan Koharchik, doing triple duty as director, set designer and lighting designer, creates a stagescape influenced by the original Broadway production but not shackled to it, making smart use of a series of upstage Hollywood Square's-ish panels. Kudos also to Michael J. Lasley's sound design, which allows every one of Tim Rice's sometimes convoluted lyrics to be clearly heard and keeps just the right balance between singer and remarkably solid orchestra.

When the tech work is of this level, the bar is raised on the performers. When they have the talent to reach that same level-as does Manlove-you want to cast off the "community theater" label. When they don't, well, they stand in uncomfortably sharp relief. All of which is to say that if only this Aida had a Radames worthy of her love and our attention, this production could have transcended. Given the casting, though, the central romance doesn't hold, robbing the show of the emotional impact it could have.

Still, there's plenty to make this a satisfying evening, highlighted by the Radamesfree act-one closer, "The Gods Love Nubia."

Those lured to Oranje (Sept. 15) by the hype may have been disappointed by how anchored-how unsurprising-Indy's version of cutting edge seemed to be. Those hoping for something akin to Penrod Art Fair's somewhat wilder cousin were more likely to have a good time.

To be sure, there was talent visible-on the music stages, in the art booths and in the film lounge-at this annual bash. But this year, its flea-market format outweighed its warehouse-cool trappings with too many artists (Big Car Gallery and a handful of others excepted) opting to cram as much sellable work into their booths rather than create an engaging experience for the $20-a-ticket attendees.
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