Often the least interesting thing about a theater company is its mission statement, which for most Twin Cities theaters seems to be lifted from some widely available template: promising plays that challenge the audience in some vague way while enriching the community through some unexplained process. More instructive, usually, is the list of donors that accompanies a program. Sometimes, surprising casting choices can be understood when one sees that the actor's father gave generously to the production (although whether he gave before or after the cast list went up is difficult to ascertain definitively). Learning to read the donors' list in this way takes a sharp eye, and an audience member who is able to suss out backstage dramas from the clues left in the program can truly congratulate herself for a keen understanding of local theater. As the Gremlin Theatre provided no such list of donors in their program for The London Cuckolds, a Restoration comedy about three lawyers and their straying wives, we must instead turn to their bold mission statement for entertainment.
Fortunately, the statement is quite satisfying, reading like a meeker statement that had grown tired of having sand kicked in its face and sent away for a correspondence course in dynamic-tension exercises from Charles Atlas. After having worked out in its garage for several months, the now-surprisingly muscular mission statement is ready to topple all takers. "Gremlin Theatre," it tells us, "seeks to provide artistically brilliant, accessible, and enjoyable theatrical experiences." The chip is on their shoulder: This little theater company will be at once brilliant, accessible, and enjoyable (even two of the three is a rare combination), and anyone who says otherwise is liable to get a knuckle sandwich, I presume.
The London Cuckolds is only the second play I have seen by this company, the previous being Sam Shepard's True West, and neither of these productions have demonstrated any great theatrical genius. But to the company's credit, both have proven to be accessible and enjoyable--exceedingly so. Gremlin is still a young company--this is only their seventh production--and they're obviously working on the cheap, but what they lack in finances and experience they make up for in glorious excess. True West, for example, was the most physical production I have seen in the past year, with the cast attacking each other on stage with an intensity that left them bruised and gasping for air.
This new production replaces violence with excessively fey mannerisms. In fact, the two plays share a cast member, Richard Jackson, who swaggered through True West in a grimy T-shirt sucking down beers, and prances through The London Cuckolds dressed in a preposterous-looking powdered wig (imagine Shirley Temple as a brunette). Jackson strolls the Black Box stage of the Phoenix Playhouse with a cane and an exaggerated gentility, rolling his eyes waggishly as he compares his virtuous wife with the wives of his fellow cuckolds.
Restoration comedies--those English farces written between 1660 and 1714 by authors such as Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Cuckolds' Edward Ravenscroft--don't get much play anymore, although their bawdy, winking humor still courses through popular culture. (Despite his swinging Sixties garb, Michael Meyer's Austin Powers character owes no small debt to the Restoration period.) The shame of it is, these scripts are a stitch: unabashedly immoral and relentlessly salacious. It is a real pleasure that a company that would have the audacity to use the word "brilliant" in its mission statement would have the somewhat counterbalancing audacity to mount so unapologetically non-brilliant a play as The London Cuckolds.
For all its seeming shortcomings, the play does feature female characters who are lusty, willful, heroic creatures, and in that, it comes off as surprisingly modern. Consider actor Sarah Brown, for example, who plays the wife of Jackson's character with a palpable excitement. From him, she receives instruction that should any man approach her, she is to answer them with "no," no matter what they might ask of her. Dissatisfied by her husband's lack of passion, Brown's character immediately turns the instruction to her advantage, cleverly stealing away with a young cad who had the intelligence to ask her if she would throw him out of her bed.
It turns out that this is a play of musical beds, as one adulterer hides under the covers while a second adulterer tries to make strained excuses to the aghast, cuckolded husband. And if this sounds somewhat pornographic--well, it is. I don't know what it is about this sort of lewd humor, but women always seem to come off rather well in it--one must look to the films of Russ Meyer or to the crass verses of the American bawdy song for women who are simultaneously as clever and as sexually powerful as they are in this play. Often, these two qualities seem mutually exclusive in art.
As mutually exclusive, that is, as brooding drama and floral decoration--but the Mixed Blood Theatre makes the two seem a sensible combination in its debut of Cut Flowers. Set in the cutting room of a tony Washington, D.C., flower shop, the play takes place over the course of one particularly momentous workday in the life of its seven characters. Most of these men have problems--alcoholism, spousal abuse, violent temper, dyspepsia--and many of these problems come to a head just as the day is about to end, leading to a lot of shouting and pregnant moments when the characters must take stock of their entire lives. This is an easily abused theatrical convention, and it is to the credit of playwright and Twin Cities-based actor Gavin Lawrence that the play rarely deteriorates into simple hand-wringing or scowling earnestness. Instead, the production takes great care in creating a realistic workspace (the cast cuts and binds literally hundreds of flowers during the play) filled with comical workroom chatter. Credibility is an underestimated quality in theater, but this production's dramatization of a cramped, unsatisfying, low-paying career is entirely believable.
Likewise, Lawrence's group of working men (played by an exceptionally strong cast that includes John Bentley, Kevin West, and James Young) steadfastly refuses to behave in a manner that is dramatically convenient, and none of the play's many conflicts are neatly resolved at the curtain. One almost feels that though the production may be over for the audience, it is not for the characters, who will return to work the following day and continue to wrestle with their myriad problems. Playwrights are sometimes tempted to wrap everything up at the end, which I suppose provides some sort of superficial dramatic satisfaction. But given a choice between neat resolutions and a credible ending, I will take the latter every time, and I'm glad that Lawrence has made the same choice.
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