|Allie Rivenbark, Zero Feeney, Tamara Sorelli, David Remple|
By Tina Arth
When going to see a play that’s new to me, I make it a firm rule not to Google the show in advance – I want to approach the material with as few preconceptions as possible. However, I love programs, and try to arrive at the theater early enough to scan the program before the show starts. Part of this is my absurd obsession with finding the inevitable typo (admittedly hypocritical, since my reviews often house blunders). However, my real goal is to learn as much as possible about the specific production I am about to see – cast list and bios, director’s notes, etc. can be a goldmine of information about how this particular performance was developed. A good sign for me is a “something old, something new” mix. I want “old” in the production team, a stable and strong group that speak to the company’s ability to retain and commit experienced techs, costumers, stage managers, and other essential support personnel. I look for the “new” in the direction and casting – not from a love of novelty, but from the conviction that the best companies eagerly seek out (and are able to attract) these front-line folks from the widest possible community. Twilight Theater‘s Body Awareness hits a homer on both counts – the director and three of four cast members are new to the company, and the production team is rife with a team of utterly reliable regular suspects.
Annie Baker’s 2008 Body Awareness is a beautifully written comedy satirizing (among other things) the hypocrisy of a culture of over-the-top feminist political correctness at Shirley State College, a fictional small-town Vermont school. Phyllis is a professor, and her partner Joyce teaches at a local high school. They share their home with Joyce’s son Jared, a quirky young man who exhibits several symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome but refuses to see a therapist for treatment. The entire play takes place during “Body Awareness Week,” an event originally designed to highlight eating disorders but expanded by Phyllis to encompass an absurdly broad range of cultural offerings, including a photo exhibit by houseguest Frank Bonitatibus, an aging hippie who specializes in portraits of nude girls and women. Phyllis is appalled by Frank’s photographs, although she’s never actually seen them, and becomes very jealous when Joyce decides to pose for Frank. Jared refuses to try college because he is an OED-obsessed autodidact, and somehow believes that he can become a professional lexicographer with no formal higher education – and he gets himself fired from his job at McDonald’s to free up more time for his studies (and to learn how to attract a girlfriend). A series of smaller explosions lead up to a final crisis, and by the final scene each character has learned and grown a little - there is no neat “happily ever after” moment in sight.
David Remple is simply remarkable as Jared, and manages to deliver what is in many ways a comic role without cheapening the performance to play for laughs. It takes him very little time to win over the audience as he fights the Asperger’s label; his sensitive performance helps us to move from sympathy to empathy for his plight. In his brief time as a male role model for Jared (and potential suitor for Joyce), Zero Feeney brings a cheery, Zen-like calm to his portrayal of Frank. Despite occasionally creepy moments we like him, and forgive him his frequent cluelessness because his delivery is so completely innocent.
The author has reserved her broadest satire for the role of Phyllis, the supercilious super-feminist psychology professor. Allie Rivenbark never misses a beat in the role, and unquestionably earns the most laughter, but the price is that she is more of a parody, less a fully realized character than her cast-mates. Finally, there’s Tamara Sorelli, whose poignantly believable portrayal of Joyce anchors the show and connects the other characters. Sorelli captures the bind in which Joyce, like countless other women throughout history, finds herself – the loving peacemaker, trying to ease the tensions around her with apologies, patience, humor, and a solid core of emotional intelligence. Joyce is caught up by the almost impossible challenge of trying to be all things to all people, and Sorelli makes us feel the love, pain, heartache, and ultimate strength of her character’s steady march toward self-realization.
The set is cleverly designed, with smoothly moving parts to facilitate set changes, but the play’s numerous brief scenes are still sometimes choppy. A few little things might help, like finding a way to leave the dining room table in place or using large calendar pages instead of writing on the blackboard, and perhaps costume changes could be streamlined. In any case, the show is not overly long (just two hours, with intermission) and certainly never drags. Ilana Watson’s sound design is a huge asset – whenever the stage is dark, the music shines brightly.
Despite Greg Shilling’s self-effacing director’s notes, he clearly did a great deal more than tell his actors where to stand and why – the pacing is steady, key moments are never over or underplayed, and the comedy is not allowed to overshadow deeper themes– all marks of skillful direction and close attention to detail. Even a small Mother’s Day crowd filled the theater with laughter, and this is definitely not a show to miss.
Twilight Theater Company’s Body Awareness is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through May 19, with performances at 8 P.M. on Thursday-Friday–Saturday, and 3:00 PM on Sunday.