Monday, September 10, 2012

The Blue Iris

written by Athol Fugard
The Fountain Theatre presents 
The United States Premiere
review by Phillip Kelly

There's enough at work here in Athol Fugard's The Blue Iris to play with, but the director Stephen Sachs doesn't know how to take advantage of it.

Yelling at the top of a show, especially if it's a ten minute long argument is one of my pet peeves as a viewer and a theatre artist. Anger is a secondary emotion and yelling isn't an emotion at all. It hides who the characters are and how they feel about what they want; yelling does not create vulnerability. If both characters are yelling, then how are we to decipher who they are to each other. I'm right and you're wrong, no I'm right, no I am. Yelling is not storytelling. An actor, especially a good one, has so many more instruments than volume that can be used to create an interesting dynamic, even with anger, that can start a show. Beginning the show like this allows little room for those actors to build to anything. There are so many more interesting ways to show anger, hatred, dislike. More specifically... well, let me back up...

The Blue Iris takes place in the South African desert Karoo (I got that bit of info from the press release, as I don't remember it being said in the play). The exact location of the show is in a burnt down farmhouse. The resident farmer Robert Hannay (Morlan Higgins) and his housekeeper Rieta (Julanne Chidi Hill) sort through the carcass of this once living place, toiling with the debris and their memories. It's a metaphor, a particularly heavy handed one if not handled with grace. The opening argument is "Shall we stay or shall we go". Rieta thinks they should leave, Robert does not, because he's trapped with his memories, the memories of his wife, Sally (Jacqueline Schultz). She died in the fire. More specifically, this is an argument Robert and Rieta have had many times, to the point of exhaustion. They are exhausted, emotionally, physically, so why are they yelling the same argument to each other that they have so many times before while in this state? It's such an easy path for the director to take and gives me nothing of interest to watch. Or if they are going to yell make it brutal and unforgiving, a la Virgina Wolf. But none of these choices are made.

There are long, extremely long passages of Robert and Rieta talking about the past and about Sally. This is another pet peeve of mine. Show me what's happening now. And eventually Fugard finds an interesting way to meld the past with the present and for a time the show comes to life. Robert finds an undamaged painting of a Blue Iris that Sally drew and this brings the ghost of Sally, at least for Robert, to life. With her on stage we see many of the stories we were already told play out, only the point of view has changed and we come to understand a more balanced truth of the series of events and what kind of man Robert truly was.

This segment of the show was haunting in a way that made me recall the Japanese film Ugetsu. Though, again, even this segment of the show relied too heavily on yelling and volume to dictate the intensity we should have been feeling as an audience. Or maybe it just didn't play because that emotional level had been spent early on in the show.

There were some great decisions made, especially technically and with stage design. The set is haunting. The costumes are dirty and grimy. The make up is excellent. All of this creates a palpable physical world and haunting ghostly world. The director and lighting designer make a bold, effective and eerie choice with two lighting cues to bring about the change in tone, preparing for Sally's arrival, or maybe they didn't. I was taught that if you do something 3 times, people will think it's brilliant. If you do it twice, people will think it's a mistake. And as effective as these wonderful lighting transitions were, part of me still wonders if they were a mistake, especially when there was a third opportunity in the show in which this lighting change would have tied it together - when Sally appears. It was a disappointing, missed moment. That's how I felt about much of the play, like a deeper truth was missed in the staging.

The actors are well cast, but are asked to react in ways that feel unnatural and dishonest. This is a melodrama, to be certain, and while there are effective moments and some interesting revelations, I never found myself connecting with the characters or caring about their plight.

The Blue Iris written by Athol Fugard. Directed by Stephen Sachs.
The United States Premiere at
The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90029 (Fountain and Normandie)
August 24th-September 16th
Tickets: 323-663-1525

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