Don't think me facetious when I say that The Jungle Theater's production of The Blue Room is a triumph of lighting design. It's a true art, this matter of placing follow spots, klieg lights, strip lights, par cans, and other whatnot. And it is shamefully rare to see a Twin Cities play lit in such a way that it isn't just the performers who are illuminated, but also other details of a production, from mood to subtext. Rare in the Twin Cities, perhaps, but not at the Jungle, where director Bain Boehlke's famously niggling obsession with every detail of a play consistently leads to lighting designs that put Thomas Kinkade to shame.
Sweet embraceable you: The Jungle Theater's Kirsten Frantzich (front) and Kris L. Nelson
The Blue Room, playwright David Hare's updating of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde, tells of a succession of sexual trysts. Think of it as a sort of an orgasmic daisy chain, in which a student will climb atop his au pair, climb off her, and later climb atop a politician's wife, whose husband is in turn bedding a 17-year-old model. The stage is often near bare, as are the characters, with the scant stage properties and habiliments supplemented by light--or, more properly, by darkness. Boehlke has his cast of two (Kirsten Frantzich and Kris L. Nelson) perform in an ongoing, oppressive darkness that is only briefly breached by the neon lights of a sex shop, flung into a room from an open window, or from a partially lit candelabra. In one instance, the only source of light is a cigarette lighter, briefly illuminating Nelson's face before he again slips into shade.
It is in this meticulously constructed shadow world that Hare's characters play out their brief couplings (some very brief; according to a countdown projected on the wall, one episode lasts less than a minute). Unfortunately, these are sometimes less interesting than the meticulous lighting design that half-reveals them. At his best, playwright Hare has a sharp sense of satire, particularly in regard to the misbehavior of theater people. He follows the affairs of a self-absorbed playwright (the second such figure essayed by Nelson, who also depicted a playwright in Once in a Lifetime at the Guthrie last year) and a perpetually adolescent actor, and he writes them without mercy. The playwright preens endlessly, his techniques of seduction--played for great comedy by Nelson--consisting of little more than alternating between self-aggrandizement and pure begging.
But when Hare's script strays to more somber territory, the production gets as murky as its mis en scene. An early scene detailing a rendezvous between a prostitute and a cab driver plays badly, looking like a parody of the British Angry Young Man school of theater. This is the style of theater in which characters speak in thick Northern English accents (poorly managed by this cast), stand with their hands planted in their pockets, rock back and forth, and finally growl at each other to sod off.
But the scene is not parody. Frantzich and Nelson bark clipped and mangled syllables across a blackened stage at each other, their seduction consisting entirely of one saying that she's not asking for any money, the other responding that he doesn't have any money anyway, as he spent it on sushi. The pair then repeats this exchange, in a slightly modified form, but making the same point: no charge, no money, sushi. The dialogue here is laughable--wretched really--and ideally spoken in darkness. Otherwise, I suspect the audience would witness the performers' mouths twisted into embarrassed grins.