Salt Lake Acting Company: Rapture, Blister, Burn
Gina Gionfriddo's Rapture, Blister, Burn is an oddity as dramatic literature in that its digressions—about the history of feminism, horror films as political commentary, and similar subjects—where the actual drama is abandoned are far more interesting than the actual drama. A moderate-length essay on those subjects by the author would probably be quite interesting, but wedged into a thin, banal piece about two women's envy of each other's lives, it makes for a frustrating evening.
On the other hand, as overdeveloped (and beholden to the wrong sort of developmental notes) as the play feels, that it's even about feminism in any serious way puts it ahead of the bulk of contemporary letters. At a time when women participating to any degree in public discourse face torrents of harrassment and even death threats simply for being women, the argument can be made that formal awkwardness can take a backseat to topical relevance just this once.
And so, Salt Lake Acting Company's production is, even by that modest standard, very much of this particular moment. Adrianne Moore's direction is crisp, and gently emphasizes the material's strong points while eliding the weaknesses smoothly. The cast's effervescent likeability manages to transcend some of the clunkier aspects of the script—particular Stewart Fullerton's excellent work, which inadvertently defines the production as a whole: plowing through some one-dimensional snark on the writer's part about Millennials and gender relations in general, to ultimately come off as a sensible grownup.
Pygmalion Productions: Spark
Despite what artists who feel hard-done by might think, critics have hearts (one apiece, in most cases) and occasionally face dilemmas in reviewing art that aren't entirely related to artistic matters. Such is the case with Spark by Caridad Svich, Pygmalion Productions' latest offering.
From a strictly artistic standpoint, it's a play with an intriguing premise that it doesn't really do anything with. It presents three sisters in the rural Carolinas: the oldest a duty-bound pragmatist who's slowly going blind, the youngest a restless tomboy with ambitions of becoming a boxer, and the middle a recently returned and understandably emotionally rattled Iraq War vet. A friendly neighbor serves as love interest for the oldest sister. There's a lot of talk, and a couple of dramatically artificial crises whose resolutions have no particular effect on the story as a whole, and there's one intriguing sequence in a graveyard where the vet encounters a grizzled old-timer who might be a metaphor for the Grim Reaper. And then the play ends, without a sense that ending exactly where it started was the larger point.
Pygmalion's production, though, breathes life into the material; the graveyard sequence, in particular, looks terrific. And ticket sales support the very good cause of working to end homelessness among veterans in Salt Lake City, so any criticism of it as art is, arguably, beside the point. This is not to cut Spark slack for any perceived shortcomings—merely to note that sometimes there are more important things than rendering judgments about "good vs. not-so-good."
Pioneer Theatre Company: One Man, Two Guvnors
Commedia dell'arte, among the fundamental precedents of modern theater, is most purely concerned with one aspect of the form: execution. The characters and situations are deliberately the same every time; it's up to the players to make the show.
This bit of historical background is helpful when approaching One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean's modern adaptation of Carlo Goldoni's 18th-century commedia homage The Servant of Two Masters, because otherwise One Man, Two Guvnors would appear to be a post-modern work—about itself rather than its ostensible subject. Instead, it's a marriage of very old forms (commedia and what reached Britain via Shakespeare), slightly less old forms (music hall, sort of) and just-barely-old forms (the live skiffle band that opens, underscores and closes the show).
Pioneer Theatre Company's production captures the larger spirit of the piece quite well, with a universally strong cast managing to feel as though it's on the brink of collapsing into chaos, while always being completely in control—a testament to David Ivers' direction and Christopher Duval's performance as Francis Henshall as Harlequin, which involves, through a number of improvisational elements, a great deal of control over the execution of the show. Most quibbles (some spotty British accents, ever-so-slightly anachronistic music) are minor, and counterbalanced with ease by the overall entertainment value of the show. It's the best kind of light entertainment: great fun in the moment, and doesn't linger oppressively afterward.