Monday, July 17, 2017

Berkshire Report: Where Storms Are Born and Baskerville

LeRoy McClain and Myra Lucretia Taylor in Harrison David Rivers’ Where Storms Are Born. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

There aren’t any startling surprises in Harrison David Rivers’ Where Storms Are Born on Williamstown’s Nikos Stage, but it has a dramatic arc and it was written with actors in mind – Rivers has given the ensemble of six plenty to play. And it has patches of sharp, lyrical writing; I think Rivers has talent. (This is his fifth play but the first I’ve encountered.) Its high point is the climactic monologue by Myles (Leroy McClain), whose death at thirty-one in prison, where he was serving a life sentence for murder, is the starting point of the play. Myles appears in flashback at different points but this speech is a dramatization of the letter he wrote his kid brother Gideon (Christopher Livingston), the protagonist of the piece, revealing the truth about the murder. It’s his way of reconciling with Gideon, who has refused to visit him in jail, and of giving him something to hold onto, and as both a descriptive piece and a confessional one, it’s vivifying and affecting. (McClain reads it with brio.)

Gideon is confused and fumbling and desperately in need of male guidance; his father died long ago, and though Myles was a teenage drug dealer (he went to jail at eighteen), he was also the boy’s protector and his counselor. Now in his twenties, working at a desk-clerk job he hates, Gideon mostly keeps his own counsel; he doesn’t confide in his mother, Bethea (Myra Lucretia Taylor), whom he still lives with – only somewhat in his childhood friend and co-worker Worthy (Jonice Abbott-Pratt, in a lively, funny performance that seems to channel bits of Rosie Perez in her early movies). Worthy knows Gideon’s gay but not that he’s sleeping with Benton (Joshua Boone), Myles’ best friend from the neighborhood and his street boss. In the course of the play – which runs ninety minutes without intermission – he moves on from Benton to Luke (Luis Vega), a guard who befriended Myles in prison and who reaches out to Gideon at a gay bar. Rivers doesn’t deal with the complications of Luke’s making a connection with Gideon both on his own behalf and on his brother’s; I would say that’s the play’s major lacuna. Though not the only one: it’s also unclear whether Gideon has come out to his mother and, if she knows he’s gay, how she feels about it. (It’s clear that she knows that he has maintained some link to Benton and that she doesn’t approve of his hanging out with the boy she holds responsible for the corruption of her older son.)

Saheem Ali’s staging could use more imagination (and Arnulfo Maldonado has given him a flexible, evocative unit set to work with), but he does a good job of directing the actors. Except for Taylor, who overacts, all the actors turn in creditable performances, though Livingston, in the most challenging role, hasn’t worked out exactly how to convey the inner life of a young man who isn’t comfortable with his feelings. Rivers has drawn Myles, Benton and Luke as foils – three characters who have responded in different ways to life for a young African American New Yorker – and McClain, Boone and Vega, all striking stage presences, suggest those differences in their scenes with Livington’s Gideon, who is implicitly weighing them against each other. Where Storms Are Born (a clumsy title) is a small achievement but a play that engages you with all six of its characters is worth talking about.

The cast of Dorset Theatre Festival’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery: Raji Ahsan, Brian Owen, Liz Wisan (centre), Caitlin Clouthier, and Dave Quay. (Photo courtesy of Dorset Theatre Festival)

I made my first visit to Theatre Dorset in Vermont, near the Massachusetts border, over the weekend and found it to be a lovely space, rustic and intimate. (It’s about an hour’s drive from Williamstown, not far from Bennington College.) Having missed my chance to see Tyne and Tim Daly in a new Theresa Rebeck play, Downstairs, I decided to check out Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, a sort of parodic vaudeville by Ken Ludwig after the manner of The 39 Steps, with a cast of five, three of whom (two men and one woman, at least in this production) play about a dozen parts among them. The shifting back and forth is part of the joke; there are moments when a line by Holmes (Liz Wisan) or Watson (Dave Quay) demands that one of the three shifters – Brian Owen, Raji Ahsan and Caitlin Clouthier – leap into one character moments after abandoning another, and the actors’ incredulousness at being asked to labor so assiduously is fun. Except for Wisan, who doesn’t get to demonstrate much versatility (despite the fact that she’s cross-gender-cast), the actors all demonstrate physical and vocal talents, especially Clouthier, who burlesques a number of accents. The problem is that the director, Jen Wineman, hasn’t shaped the production at all, so it looks as if the actors made up stuff as they went along. And since she clearly didn’t curb their self-indulgence, every routine goes on for half a minute or a minute too long, including some (like Owen’s screaming tantrum as the foppish naturalist Stapleton) that aren’t even remotely funny.

Alexander Woodward’s set is amusingly littered with props, mostly specimens Holmes has collected, and they’re nifty to look at. But since only the opening scene takes place in Holmes’ study, the omnipresence of his collection (and his furniture) is distracting, too, and a little confusing. My favorite part of the set was the upper level, above the backdrop, which gets employed at various points and in a number of ways, mostly of them unpredictable. Aaron P. Mastin provided the costumes, which enhance the humor.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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