Ever since Rocky II led my posse of North Dakota roughnecks to a four-and-a-half-hour anti-mushiness hunger strike, I've been sensitive to cultural letdowns. I had Carson Kreitzer's Slither pegged to be a highlight of the autumn theater season--a hunch based on what looked to be a propitious confluence of director, cast, and playwright, and what I now suspect was a generous appraisal of the script. You're welcome, then, to consider my disappointment with this world premiere from Eye of the Storm Theatre, the 12-year-old company's final production, in the context of the reviewer's history with inflated expectations.
Slither covers a lot of ground in little time. It begins with the biblical Eve (Claudia Wilkens) reminiscing in a revisionist but folksy manner. There's some funny stuff in Eve's grandmotherly musings (on Cain and Abel: "There had been some roughhousing..."), but there's a greater supply of blandly restated aphorisms. Permanent residence in Eden wouldn't have worked out anyway, Eve explains, since one needs the bad to appreciate the good--some rather, if you will, garden-variety wisdom.
Eve, as biblical scholars might recall, had a famous run-in with a serpent, a meeting that connects her to the rest of the play's time-spanning women. In scenes that are as pretentious as much of rest of the production is hokey, we meet a Cretan snake priestess (Kate Eifrig) who's filled with dread as she watches the arrival of Greek conquerors. The modern component of the story follows three generations of women from the American South. Fanny Lou (Charity Jones) is a carnival performer from the 1930s who does a racy act with a snake. Her husband Adam (David Mann) is a lavishly earnest inventor. In the present day, their granddaughter, Evie (Zoe Pappas), is married to a Holiness Church preacher (Terry Hempleman) whose ministry involves the liturgical handling of venomous snakes. (For some reason, Slither completely ignores the work of snake-friendly rocker Alice Cooper.)
The play is episodic, with all of the above-mentioned characters (and a few more) coming and going in a series of vignettes and snapshots. Nothing is inherently wrong, of course, with such a structure, but in this case it's problematic: Scenes aren't given time to simmer, the characters remain skeletal, and not much tension develops. What's more, we're beset with a stream of Cute and/or Profound Scene-Ending Lines. And for a work that attempts to embrace a layered theology, the characters are played in a black-and-white style atypical of the director Casey Stangl and the accomplished cast: The villains are unbelievably bad, while the heroes are cloyingly good. The love story between Fanny Lou and Adam is corny and false, with the syrup sometimes gumming up otherwise attractive moments. In a flashback scene, Adam tells his granddaughter about how he invented epoxy glue, explaining how the adhesive's two elements--nonsticky by themselves--combine to create the world's strongest bond. But his quirky wit is disrupted by young Evie's aw-shucks response: "I thought this wasn't a story about you and grandma." Hiss.
Edwin Strout is regularlycalled on to play buffoons, cads, and worse. In Theatre in the Round's production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, he's in top creep form. He plays Professor Bernard Nightingale, a pompous literary scholar and a philandering Beau Brummell--it's a wonder no one has turned one of his ascots into a noose. Strout dives into the character, knowing just when to emphasize the character's obnoxiousness by stretching out a word with phlegmy, John Houseman-like pomp. As an academic, Nightingale is reckless--he's on a mad, truth-be-damned hunt to fill in a bit of biography on the perennially marketable Lord Bryon--but he knows his stuff, and he brandishes his learning, ever mindful that "knowledge is power," albeit with less Bacon than swine in the interpretation.
Stoppard's 1993 play alternates between 1809 and the 1990s, with all of the action unfolding in the same room of an elaborate English manse. It touches on chaos theory, the transition from the age of reason to the era of romanticism, and even the history of English gardening and landscape architecture. In less dexterous hands, Arcadia might be simply Arcane, but Matt Sciple's lucid direction keeps the ideas approachable, mainly by dint of the dozen-strong cast's deft exploitation of Stoppard's leavening humor. Don Eitel, for example, offers a bounty of clowning facial expressions, Peter Hansen excels at droll repartee, and Mr. Strout waxes intolerable in the most deliciously icky way.