by Heather J. Violanti · July 17, 2014
First produced by the RSC in 1994, Pentecost is both a play of its time and of the present moment. David Edgar’s multi-layered drama about the discovery of a painting that could upend art history, establishing a tiny church in Eastern Europe as the birthplace of modern painting a century before Giotto’s groundbreaking use of three-dimensional perspective, was written only a few years after the fall of the Soviet Bloc. Amidst its art history backdrop, Pentecost examines the explosive mix of violence and hope pervading southeastern Europe as the region struggled to establish new national identities after Communism. While art historians debate the provenance of the long-forgotten painting, the world around them erupts into chaos. Pentecost’s exploration of the intersection between national identity and violence very much reflect the time it was written while remaining relevant for the present uncertain age.
For all its prescience and commitment to a global, non-Western European-centered view of history, the play displays some flashes of old-fashioned stereotyping, as when it milks laughs from art curator Gabriella Pecs’ misappropriation of English idioms (as when she advises discretion by urging her colleague to“softly softly catch your monkey.”) Perhaps this is natural in a play where so much depends on the meaning of, and mistranslation of, words across borders and centuries, but the joke can wear thin.
Still the play is rich in ideas and is brought to life with eloquence by PTP/NYC. Director Cheryl Faraone’s taut production is both efficient and heartfelt, grappling with Edgar’s big ideas and big emotions with grace. The cast, a mix of professional actors and Middlebury College students, acquits itself well across an ensemble of difficult parts. Of particular note is college senior Tosca Giustini . She is astonishing as Gabriella Pecs, perfectly capturing the world-weariness and intellectual acumen of a woman two decades her senior. Jonathan Tindle imbues art historian Oliver Davenport with modest charm and surprising heroism, while Alex Draper’s portrayal of Lo Katz bristles with skepticism and humanity.
While Pentecost is a play of ideas that spur emotion, Enter At Forest Lawn is a play of animal instincts that lurk behind even the most seemingly banal of ideas.—in this case, a Two and a Half Men-ish sitcom run by writers who’ll stop at nothing to climb the Hollywood ladder, not even covering up the increasingly horrific antics of the sitcom’s out-of-control star. Mark Roberts’ provocative new play, directed by Jay Stull for The Amoralists, displays the company’s trademark “no moral judgment” aesthetic—its characters are complex, contrary, driven people whose words, desires, and actions plumb the darker elements of human nature.
Echoing the script’s instinctual drive, Stull emphasizes the characters’ animal natures. The cast skulk and scuttle across the stage with distorted, clawing postures: as in Mark Roberts’ venomous, almost crab-like Jack, a tyrannical head writer who stoops over his desk, barking orders into his phone while tearing everyone to shreds; Anna Stromberg’s snakelike Marla, Jack’s slinky seductive rival who uses sex as her bargaining tool; Sarah Lemp’s twittering, insect-like Jessica, a naïve PA in-over-her-head; David Lanson’s anxious Stanley, who crouches in permanent fear of testicular cancer; and Matthew Pilieci’s triumphantly weird Clinton, an aspiring writer/war veteran who lost his hand in the field, whose crooked gait, exaggerated drawl, and ominous metal claw suggest a feral Forrest Gump by way of Captain Hook.
The ominous feeling extends to David Harwell’s sleek set design, all ominous shiny metal surfaces. It simultaneously evokes an office-from-hell and the mausoleum at Forest Lawn, suggesting that while power-hungry Jack strives to dig the graves of his rivals, he may just be, unwittingly, digging his own. Jeanne Travis’ eerie sound design, full of echoes, static, animal grunts, and canned laughter, heightens the emotional unease.
While Roberts’ play packs a constant punch, there is something oddly distancing about the production—for all its menace, there is seldom danger. The characters have gone so far in their quest for power that they don’t have anywhere to go—but maybe that’s the point. It’s a dog eat dog world, and the hounds have nothing else left to do but tear each other apart.