Saturday, April 15, 2017

On the Road: Violet at the American Repertory Theater

Coordinating anything in incessantly busy Harvard Square is difficult, but trying to mount a professional-grade production of a musical on a moving bus traveling around the square seems like an exercise in pure masochism. Nevertheless, director Sammi Cannold has pulled off this trying logistical task, staging Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley’s Violet in a variety of locations around the square, most notably a bus that stands in for the one that’s the main setting of the show. What’s far more impressive, however, is how Cannold has managed to scale her production to its intimate setting, giving what could have been a shallow gimmick some vital depth. Cannold’s production comes as part of American Repertory Theater’s “Mini Series,” a number of small-scale performance events geared towards tiny audiences that, depending on the show, range in number from twenty-five observers to a lone spectator. It’s not the first time Cannold has directed the show in this way: she did an earlier version in the same manner at Stanford in 2013.

Violet has some lovely music, and the Roundabout Theatre’s 2014 revival with Sutton Foster in the title role featured a strong cast, as Steve Vineberg noted for this site at the time. I mostly agree with Steve’s take on the show’s strengths and weaknesses, especially with regards to some flaws in the plot, based on Doris Betts’s short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” which book writer Crawley does little to alleviate. Violet follows its eponymous lead character on a journey from North Carolina to Oklahoma, where she hopes to meet a faith healer who can cure the disfiguring facial scar that resulted from an incident in her childhood and causes people to react to her with shock and disgust. Along the way, she meets not one but two handsome soldiers who fall in love with her. That part’s fairly straightforward, but there’s also another narrative strand, told in flashbacks that weave in and out of the present-day story, involving Violet’s relationship with her father. It might have partly been a function of the unique staging (more on that in a moment), but I found parts of this backstory confusing, especially in the scene when it merges with her quest in Oklahoma and leads her to believe that she’s been cured.

Since so much of it takes place on the bus that Violet and her newfound friends are riding on, the show presents a problem for directors in terms of staging it in an interesting way. Cannold leans into this, using the confined space of the bus (which has tinted windows that mostly obscure the outside world and allow the audience to focus on the dramatic action) to radically change how her audience perceives and relates to the characters. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that my wife, with whom I attended the show, spent most of the first act sitting right next to this show’s Violet, played by Allie Trimm. The show subsequently moves to a number of other venues in the Harvard Square area, including ART’s Club Oberon space and the First Parish Church just outside of Harvard Yard. Given how close audience members get to the performance, scene and costume designers Madie Hays and Elizabeth Rocha deserve some credit for their attention to detail, including, in the case of the former, vintage-looking ads placed strategically around the bus.

Allie Trimm as Violet

Despite the obvious difficulties posed by performing on a noisy, moving bus in a crowded urban area, Cannold has managed to make this Violet clear and engaging. Contending with considerable background noise and the volume of the pre-recorded music that, by necessity, they must sing along with, the cast projects beautifully, oftentimes while moving through the vehicle as it jostles over bumpy Cambridge roads. Indeed, I noted that, when the action shifted into Oberon for the climax of the first act, the performers’ unamplified voices became notably harder to hear. The blocking’s also well-orchestrated, with action always remaining easy to follow in the confines of the bus.

Calibrating the production aspects of the show to such an intimate scale is impressive, but what really struck me was how Cannold and her cast have managed to do the same for the play on an emotional and artistic level. Trimm’s wonderful, bringing the requisite subtlety to Violet’s paradoxical combination of openness and vulnerability, and, on the night that I saw the show, she was matched by Eowyn Young, who played the younger version of the character. Trimm also has clear chemistry with Jaison Hunter, the talented actor who played Flick, a young African-American man who’s one of the soldiers who falls in love with Violet. Hunter has a physical dynamism that matches his strong voice, and when Flick’s prevented from spending time with Violet during an overnight stop in Memphis – her appearance aside, she’s still a white woman in the South, and it’s dangerous for them to be seen together too much – the way that he uses the physicality to hint at the inner conflict that this provokes is marvelous. Harvard undergraduate Ashley LaLonde is another standout: her character, Lula Buffington, gets a show-stopping gospel number (“Raise Me Up”) at the church where Violet hopes to be cured, and LaLonde plays this small but rewarding role with exuberance and a sly sense of humor. Many of the supporting cast members are fellow students, either at Harvard College or at ART’s graduate institute, and in some cases their journeyman status is still apparent in wooden line readings and physically awkward performances.

Cannold’s Violet is, if nothing else, compelling in that it serves as proof of concept for the sort of site-specific, immersive theatre that’s become her signature style (she recently staged a concert version of the musical Ragtime on Ellis Island, and she’s currently the associate director for Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, the Broadway version of which originated at ART). In many respects, this sort of production strikes me as a strong argument for the future viability of theatre in a world in which even television and movies are losing viewers to the myriad forms of electronic entertainment available to their erstwhile audiences. Sitting next to a Broadway veteran as she delivers an enchanting performance is the sort of experience one can’t get anywhere else.

That said, I can’t help thinking that there’s a trade-off implicit in the move from conventional stagecraft to site-specific work. Cannold’s Violet is mostly very effective, but the play’s structure is such that there were some scenes where I found myself wishing for a good old-fashioned lighting grid overhead. Without it, some of the flashback scenes felt ill-defined. Having the viewing experience broken up by getting off and on the bus was refreshing, and repurposing a found space for a show undeniably lends it a frisson of authenticity that’s distinct from the enjoyment we’d find in seeing the same play in a theatre. (It can also lead to some minor incongruities: “Raise Me Up,” delightful as it was, felt slightly out of place in the austerity of the First Parish Church; I wondered what the congregation’s puritanical forebears would make of the raucous, evangelical musical number.) Corny as it is might be to say it, there’s a sort of magic to watching set, costumes, and lighting create a world onstage, and at times site-specific theatre threatens to descend into a literal-mindedness that limits our capacity to imagine ourselves into this world.  

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscentipage and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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