Back Stage

Behind the scenes at Theatre in the Round: The greatest performances ever given by an actor's rump, and the talismanic powers of bad lobby art

So far I have counted two unique pleasures offered by the Theatre in the Round Players (aside from the charm of watching an adventurous community theater tackle the complete lifework of George Bernard Shaw within its own hefty performing space in the heart of the city.) First, because of their distinct, six-sided playing area, a significant portion of any production seen at the theater, from any seat in the house, will be spent staring at an actor's back. Now, there is some art to this: The actor speaks, hands waving in the air, and the audience stares at the back of the actor's neck or at knotting shoulder muscles, using these clues to discern mood and expression. I call it bacting, and during the course of any show, I frequently find myself trying to come up with new adjectives with which to fawn over truly magnificent performances that are seen only from behind. So far, I have only been able to come up with one: backtacular.

The second TRP pleasure is somewhat irrelevant, but, so help me, I just can't help smiling when the house lights rise for the intermission. I climb down into the performance space and pick my way through the set with the remainder of the audience, working my way to the theater's concession area. Here, up several stairs behind the concession stand, is the theater's small art gallery, and it is this location where you can spot me sipping root beer and grinning like a dope, staring at the paintings on the walls. I have only one question when I go to a TRP play: Will the art in the gallery be worse than it was for the last show? During intermission, this question is inevitably answered with Yes! Somehow, yes! The theater has managed to hang artwork that is even more awful than that of the preceding show! I spend 15 happy minutes peering at the childlike scrawls and splashes of colored paint that fill the gallery, sipping my soda, and when I return to my seat I cheerily puzzle over the logic of the art gallery. I have come to believe that some obscure theatrical superstition is at work here--that perhaps the staff of TRP has come to believe they can totemically ward off bad onstage art by hanging bad art in their gallery.

Will more people really come to see our show if I wear fishnets in the press photo? Theatre in the Round's Spike Heels
Will more people really come to see our show if I wear fishnets in the press photo? Theatre in the Round's Spike Heels

Yet with their current production, Spike Heels, TRP has let me down. After the abbreviated run of this show (just three short weeks), the theater will close down for a $150,000 overhaul in honor of the company's 50th anniversary. Construction, alas, has already begun; the art gallery is empty, its elevated floor torn up, its walls bare and exposed.

By the logic of superstition, with no bad art in the gallery, all the bad art in Spike Heels must be found onstage. And so it is. The script, by Theresa Rebeck, proposes itself as a feminist updating of Pygmalion.

Somehow, however, in her revision she has replaced George Bernard Shaw's canny essay on class and gender with a script in which a girl from the wrong side of the tracks (Camilla Little, doing a terrific impersonation of Rosie Perez) is caught in a romantic quadrangle between a meek professor (Bill Manion, who could double for Charles Nelson Reilly), his wan fiancée (Abigail Avila, looking lost), and an unctuous lawyer (Jonathan Peterson, the play's sole bright spot).

Shaw never explored the romance between Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in his play, viewing it as irrelevant. With Rebeck's script, but for a few moments when our protagonist complains about her sorry lot in life, the story consists of nothing but her being passed between two men. This is the sort of witless fluff masquerading as women's empowerment that often filled the movie theaters in the past decade, in which women inevitably bonded by drinking alcohol, turning up their stereo, and dancing around the kitchen table. (Look to The First Wives' Club, Practical Magic, and Sorority House Massacre 2, among other texts.) So, midway through the play, when Rebeck has orchestrated a moment in which her two female characters are alone with glasses of Scotch in their hands, we can hardly be surprised when one reaches over to the stereo and cranks the volume. And, when the women summarily begin to cha-cha in circles, we do have something of a masterpiece of women's liberation before us. Except for the masterpiece part. And the part about liberation. You wanna go toe-to-toe with Shaw? Fair enough, but my belated advice is that a feminist revision should try to be a little more feminist than its source material. I'm just saying.

Still, this production does offer little pleasures, particularly in Jonathan Peterson's performance. He plays his oily lawyer with a deft combination of mannered arguments and suspicious tenderness, alternately browbeating and mothering the surrounding characters, and eventually comes across as the sole sympathetic figure--astonishing, when you consider that he is supposed to have threatened to rape the protagonist at the start of the play (reminded of the fact, he rises on a chair and shakes his fists in rage, crying out "I am so past that!"). Peterson fills his stage time with so many comic grace notes, stealing toothbrushes and corn flakes and wiping his mouth on laundry that's been left out to dry, that I spent a few minutes after the show searching the set for examples of bad art, certain that Peterson must have hidden them somewhere in the performance space as a talisman. The closest I was able to find were a few tiki mugs secreted on a bookshelf, and I am not certain that kitsch qualifies as bad art. Maybe Peterson had a postcard version of a big-eyed kid painting by Walter Keane hidden in his coat pocket.

Whatever the case, while I can't shower Peterson with laurels for his performance, I will say he was...well...backisfactory.

 
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