Going the Distance
From Meisner to Method Acting classes, the short form works of Neil LaBute, with their heightened, naturalistic dialogue, have proven to be popular go to scripts for many acting coaches and student productions. Self-contained, LaBute's shorter works often provide ideal material for audition pieces. Which often sends a shudder of dread down a potential audience’s spine. Because all too often that’s exactly what a LaBute short, or monologue, show feels like; a student audition piece that never became a full performance. If there’s a hint of this in Out of Time Theatre’s current production of LaBute’s “Bash,” where two monologues wrap themselves around a two-hander to explore the nature of evil, it’s also a production that stands its ground, and one that ultimately manages to go the distance.
Often called “Bash: The Latter-Day Plays” because of their focus on Mormonism, a religion of which LaBute was once a member before being sent into Mormon exile, Out of Time Theatre have opted for the simpler “Bash” in keeping with LaBute’s modifications to minimise the works Mormon connection. LaBute didn’t want the experiences his triptych explores to be dismissed as oddities of religious indoctrination, but wanted them to speak to a universal experience. Director Emily Maher shows a good appreciation of LaBute’s use of Greek myth to explore modern day evil, as well as ensuring accents are exceptionally well done. Yet her directorial presence is overly imprinted on “Bash.” Rather than feeling like three individual movements, all three pieces look, feel, sound, and move in identical fashion, constrained by a single directorial voice into a narrow performative range. A range defined by immense restraint. With performers often appearing to be reined in too tightly, the overall effect is to keep “Bash” moving at an unchanging, pedestrian pace.
Opening with Iphigenia in Orem, Patrick Bokin delivers a standout performance as a father believing himself on the verge of losing his job and resorting to extreme measures, in what is the most successful of the three pieces. Bokin’s restraint buckles in places and his performance is all the better for it as he slips the reins, allowing the festering emotions bubbling underneath to find truer expression. In the duet that follows, A Gaggle of Saints, Patrick McConnell Flannery and Ciara Andrea Smith as the all-American jock and his popular high school girl, play out their American dream of white privilege and violent prejudice. Yet both struggle to find connection in what is the most difficult piece of the three. With pacing off, it all starts to look and feel like a verbal tennis match after a while, as rallies of dialogue are flicked across the stage with little variation. This tale doesn’t quite come together as chemistry between the two is never quite achieved due, in part, to both actors seeming to embrace the stereotype rather than the character trying to live it. In the final piece, Medea Redux, Deirdre Jones as the surviving victim of child abuse physically looks the part, but excessive restraint again prevents this piece from igniting. In all cases, the physical dynamics of performance suffer with actors often looking uncomfortable when transitioning between standing, sitting, using their arms or smoking a cigarette, the latter seeming to interrupt the performance rather than informing it. Too often the ‘acting’ is obvious, with cast holding the moment or waiting on the beat, made even more noticeable under the intense scrutiny this pared back form demands. A situation not helped by Brian Murray’s light and sound design which struggles to find its feet.
If LaBute’s dialogue feels like overheard conversation, this heightened naturalism is only a convention. One built on a structure similar to a boxing match. Rhythm is always slow at first, setting it all up. Pacing is paramount, as each piece engages in a lot of shifting foot work, ducking and weaving, dodging and bobbing as jabs are thrown to feel out openings before unleashing killer right hooks to land their knockout blows. If “Bash” lands its punches, it unfortunately pulls them first, ensuring they carry very little weight when they make contact, feeling like slaps rather than knockout blows. In between blows, performers stand far too still, telegraphing their wind-up punches from miles out. But you sense it’s all there, bubbling just below the surface. If they could only just relax, float more like butterflies and sting like bees, there could be some serious power behind this production. Yet if “Bash” doesn’t deliver a knockout punch, it certainly goes the distance, and if it can feel like a tough night of theatre at times, it often has moments that find their mark and one incredibly impressive performance.
“Bash” by Neil LaBute, produced by Out of Time Theatre runs at The Players Theatre until July 29th
For more information, visit Out of Time Theatre Company