by Geoff Hoff ~
To begin at the beginning. That is the opening line of Dylan Thomas’ lush, lusty “play for voices”, Under Milkwood, originally intended as a radio play. It is often performed live on stage, however (and once as a rather ill-advised movie), either in traditional “reader’s theatre” mode, with actors siting on stools in front of music stands holding their scripts and each playing several roles, or more elaborately, as it was by the Coeurage Theatre production at the Space Theatre.
The play is a sort of prose poem, or, perhaps, theatrical poem, and Thomas’ rich language and imagery is evident from the very start. It begins, at the beginning, of course, in the pitch black late night, early morning of a small fishing town in Wales called Llareggub. You can get a sense of Thomas’ deliciously bawdy sense of humor when you realize the town’s name is “bugger all” spelled backwards. From that dark early morning we follow the dreams of the sleeping citizens and, it seems, of the town itself, through their waking up, going to work, eating lunch and on into tucking themselves back into bed, it is a simple tale of a simple day in a simple town with it’s wholly remarkable people.
There is the small, hairy, monkey-like baker who has two wives; the woman who runs the local boarding house, along with the spirits of both of her dead husbands, who is so afraid of germs and death she won’t have any lodgers bringing the world in past her doorstep; the mailman, whose wife is constantly brewing teas and syrups as an excuse to always have a source of steam with which to open the envelopes before they’re delivered; the master and mistress of school house who live in a mausoleum-like darkness where he fantasizes about killing her in the most colorful ways while she picks and nags at him. There is the minister who writes decidedly pagan poetry to chronicle his love of the town and it’s inhabitants. And, of course, blind Captain Cat, who lives above the tavern and sits listening to the town at his window (able to recognize the voice or footsteps of every person) and remembers his past life on the sea and in the arms of his women, all dead now.
There are some sixty characters in Dylan Thomas’ play, played in this production by seven actors, and played marvelously, each one distinct and real and alive. By the end, you know them all, and know them well. I was concerned about a production of this play in Los Angeles. I feared the language would escape the sensibilities of the actors. I wasn’t reassured, upon entering the theatre, when I saw a space cluttered with set pieces and props. I feared the staging would overtake the poetry and life of the piece. Then the light dimmed and, under wonderful Celtic music, the seven actors entered, took their places and settled for a moment into the moonless spring night, “starless and bible-black.” All my worry evaporated. As each actor chimed in to build the sound and feel, the lust, love and reverence of the souls and soul of the town, it all came wonderfully alive, peopled with real people who breathed and ate and gossiped and loved and lusted. Dylan Thomas’ words and sounds and images were there, but more: The life behind those words and images was brought forth.
It is impossible, I think, to give all the actors their due. The cast consisted of Noah Gillett, Aimee Karlin, Christopher Roque, Noel Salter, Sammi Smith, Peter Weidan Weidman and Mattew Henerson. To try to pick out one performance or even one character or moment as exemplary would be to dismiss the fully realized performances. With one exception, they are all fine actors, infinitely watchable, each deserving of individual praise. It is hard to praise them individually, however, as the program does not list which actor played which of the many people in the town, so I will praise them collectively. The director, Ryan Wagner, made the risky choice of having them all perform with an authentic Welsh accent, which proved to be a wise choice. It added to the lilt and lust of the language and the actors were well up to the task. After a brief moment of surprise that they were doing it, the accents became so ingrained in the performances that they disappeared. In a play like this, with characters that are filled with exaggerated lives, it would be easy to have simple, throw-away characterizations. It would be tempting to dig into a bag of acting tricks to present cartoon versions of the people, but these actors did not do that. Each character was full and filled with their own happinesses and sadnesses, goals and desires, ways of looking at life or avoiding it.
The one exception to this complete ensemble was Matthew Henerson, who plays Captain Cat. He seemed to be in a different play. While the other cast members were always fully engaged in their rich environment, when it wasn’t “his turn” to be the focus, his eyes wandered around the stage and auditorium, waiting for his next bit. His accent was more middle-eastern than Welsh and, unlike the fully realized characters that the rest of the cast created, the rumbling gravitas of his delivery had little behind it besides a resonant voice.
The set, uncredited in the program, was simple, but came alive with the imaginative use given it by the director and actors. The lighting design, by Michelle Stann was subtle and more than effective. The sound, also by Ms. Stann, was a brilliant mix of music and atmospheric highlights and punctuation that, besides a moment or two when it almost overtook the voices on stage, supported the story of the town wonderfully. Original music was by Gregory Nabours, and was also wonderful. Dylan Thomas includes several songs, complete with melody, in the script, but Mr. Nabours contributed incidental and background music that set tone and place very well. The costumes, also uncredited, were also very good.
Under Milkwood is performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm through September 18th, 2010.
The Space Theatre is located at 665 Heliotrope Dr., Los Angeles, CA 90029, just east of Vermont.
Ticket prices: Pay-What-You-Want
Reservations online at http://www.coeuragetheatre.com/rsvp .