THEATER REVIEW: ‘Things As They Are” @ Playwrights Local by Roy Berko

Through Sun 5/28

Things As They Are explores the life of Wallace Stevens, the American modern poet who was often called “aloof” and “uptight,” has been classified as “meditative and philosophical,” and as “a poet of ideas.”  Those ideas often confounded and confused his readers.

Stevens once wrote, “We approach reality with a piecemeal understanding, putting together parts of the world in an attempt to make it seem coherent. To make sense of the world is to construct a worldview through an active exercise of the imagination. This is no dry, philosophical activity, but a passionate engagement in finding order and meaning.”

Stevens won the Pulitzer Prize of 1955 for his Collected Poems.

Stevens, who lived from 1879-1955, is a perfect subject for a thoughtful drama based on his interpersonal relationship breakdowns, his mood swings, his marriage to Elsie Kachel whom his socially conscious parents thought was “lower-class,” his breaking off contact with his family, Elsie’s mental illness, an ongoing crisis with his daughter, and his Robert Taft-like conservative political views.

His “Key West, Florida,” arguments with Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway are legendary, as were the details of his troubled marriage, and short-term friendships. This was a man of great contradictions and insights, of varying vocations and avocations. During his life he was a successful poet, lawyer and insurance executive.

Things as They Are is a multimedia work written by David Todd. It features an impressive original music score performed and conceived by Ben Chasny. Though Stevens is interesting, and well deserves to be immortalized on stage, the play is much too long and the script, as conceived, seems overly ambitious and not clearly focused.

Due to stimulus overload, it’s sometimes difficult to pay attention to the storyline. The need for all of the music, electronic images, dancing and Commedia dell’Arte is questionable. Also up for examination is the weak presentational quality of some of the elements. Kudos to director Anjanette Hall for attempting to get the pieces & parts all blended together.

Robert Hawkes nicely textures his performance as the mature Wallace Stevens. His final acting scene was very effective. Laura Starnik and Tessa Hager create meaningful women as Elsie (wife) and Holly (daughter). The rest of the cast — Jason Markouc, Robert Branch, Kenzie Critzer, Jeanne Task, Marco Liguori and Liam Stilson — are generally effective.

Ben Chasny and John Elliott create a strong musical presence. Unfortunately, the sound system is such that most of the offstage reading of Steven’s poetry was drowned out by the underscoring music. Paul Lowry’s projection design was well-conceived as was Jonathan Maag’s lighting.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: As a play in process, Things As They Are needs to be reexamined with an eye for sharpening and tightening the dialogue and ascertaining whether all the visual and audio stimuli are necessary to tell the tale. For those who like to see new works, to discuss and add input into the development process, Playwrights Local and this play offer that opportunity.

Playwrights Local, a development and production center, is dedicated to fostering diverse talents and presenting locally written theatrical works. “It strives to increase the impact of original theater on the community and to raise the profile of area playwrights both within Greater Cleveland and beyond.”

Things As They Are is being performed at Reinberger Auditorium in Detroit-Shoreway. For information and ticket orders go to playwrightslocal.

[Written by Roy Berko, Cleveland Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association]

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