Theater | Family Affairs: A big theater company gets historical, while a small one gets intimate. 

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The Yellow Leaf
nCharles Morey loves artists and the moment of artistic inspiration—but maybe, just maybe, it’s time to move on.

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Over the course of his tenure as Pioneer Theatre Company artistic director, Morey has seen several of his own original plays produced. And it’s clear that his preferred subject is the moment of the muse: his interpretation of The Three Musketeers with a writer’s block-afflicted Alexandre Dumas; the story of Dumas fils living the story behind Verdi’s La Traviata; the life of a theater company in Laughing Stock. While all have been clever, amusing tales, art about art can easily become a trap: What if your ideas don’t resonate beyond your own peer group?

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In The Yellow Leaf, Morey takes a famous moment in creative history—the summer 1816 gathering at the Swiss estate of Lord Byron (Bjorn Thorstad) where Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Ellen Adair) created Frankenstein—and plumbs it for thematic depth. The group—which also includes Mary’s not-yet-husband Percy Shelley (Christopher Kelly), Mary’s half-sister Claire (Lena Hurt) and Byron’s personal physician Dr. Polidori (Giorgio Litt)—were all the subject of sexual scandal and innuendo. Byron was accused of various infidelities, possibly including incest; Percy, Mary and Claire were thought to be part of a private ménage-a-trois. They were libertine liberals emerging from an age of democratic revolution into a more conservative time. How would their complicated personal lives reveal themselves in the ghost stories they would write?

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Because Morey has a fine sense for comedy, The Yellow Leaf generally succeeds at being simply entertaining. Thorstad’s Byron provides a wonderfully decadent master of ceremonies, lamenting his fall of fortune even as he tries to be a good host. And Litt’s Polidori offers effective comic relief as a religious man who appears terribly out of place in this company. The other performances never quite connect on the same level, but neither do they detract from the fun when Byron is purring out another double-entendre.

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Morey is also determined, however, to explore parallels between his characters and the present. Yet his “present”—nudging references to governments spying on their own citizens, religion as a force against reason—somehow already feels more connected to 2006, when the play was written, than to a post-Bush present. There’s a mournful quality in the characters’ direct addresses to the audience, and to the play’s flash-forwards to their grief-filled later lives, that feels excessive. As an artist himself, maybe Charles Morey feels their pain just a bit too much. –SR

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The Yellow Leaf @ Pioneer Theatre Company, 300 S. 1400 East, Jan. 9-24, 581-6961. PioneerTheatre.org

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Rabbit Hole
nWhenever I see a Pinnacle Acting Company show, I make a point to buy a candy bar at intermission. So should you, because they need the money. More to the point, they deserve the money: These guys do more with less than any company I’ve seen, and they do it with pure acting horsepower.

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This time around it was David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, a wrenching portrayal of married couple Becca (Melanie Nelson) and Howie (Jared Larkin) dealing with the death of their 4-year-old son eight months previous to the first act. I’ve seen this one before, performed by another company in town; it was the production that taught me how to write a negative review. Not this time, though. Pinnacle got everything right that their higher-profile colleagues got wrong a couple of summers back.

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Nelson and Larkin nail their difficult roles as two people in love trying to keep their marriage together while dealing with tragedy in divergent ways. The key here is that their relationship is believable and compelling. The dynamic between them is familiar to anyone who has gone through a rough patch with someone they continue to care about. They fight well; they cry well. The subtleties of their interplay are necessary to bring this wonderful script to life, and their execution in this regard is unimpeachable.

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That’s not to say that the production is perfect. Phaidra Atkinson’s portrayal of Becca’s sister, Izzy, is inconsistent. She switches between spot-on nuance and broad canned delivery within the confines of a single scene. Actors begin scenes by talking over trailing interlude music in what must have been a conscious directorial choice but is nonetheless distracting.

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Also, there are the matters of the set and the space. I’m not laying blame here, just using it to bring up the money again. The set and the very building in which it resides have an obvious aura of making-do. The Midvale Performing Arts Center, which I have now been to twice and still have difficulty finding, has all the charm of my childhood church’s social hall. The furnishings of the supposedly upper-middle-class suburban home seem to have come from DI, or your grandfather’s garage.

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This is not to deride Pinnacle Acting Company, but to encourage members of the community to support its efforts to the best of their ability so as to give these fine performers a stage worthy of them. I don’t think my Snickers purchase is going as far as I’d like. –RT

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Rabbit Hole @ Midvale Performing Arts Center, 695 W. 7720 South, Jan. 8–24, 309-8934. PinnacleActingCompany.org tttt

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About The Author

Rob Tennant

Bio:
Rob Tennant is a Salt Lake City freelance writer.

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