Production puts acting, storytelling at center stage

April 22, 1994|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Special to The Sun

There are no booming show tunes, spectacular period costumes or chandeliers crashing to the floor.

The appeal of "Domestic Relations" is in its simplicity as it conveys through story theater the universal drama of average people struggling to come to terms with their lot in life.

Produced for Howard Community College's Performing Art Series by the Masterworks Laboratory Theatre of New York, "Domestic Relations" will be presented this weekend in the Theatre Outback.

"It's theater that doesn't rely heavily on lighting or extensive set designs," said Kasi Campbell, general manager of the Performing Art Series.

"This is minimalist theater; all is concentrated in acting and storytelling."

The play is based on a collection of 13 short stories by the late Irish author Frank O'Connor.

It is structured in a three-program format -- three separate plays performed over three nights -- and each program stands on its own.

"The stories are loosely themed, from funny and ironic to tender and painful," said director Walt Witcover, founder of Masterworks Laboratory Theatre and the Walt Witcover Acting Studio in Baltimore.

"They're about families, mostly working class people. [Most] take place around the kitchen table, as many of life's problems take place across the kitchen table."

Program I, "An Only Child," will be performed at 8 p.m. today. "It's about the tribulations of only children and how they deal with that in other areas of life," Mr. Witcover said.

Program II, "The Common Chord," will be performed at 8 p.m. tomorrow. It focuses on themes of human sexuality -- "old fashioned, 1950s sexuality," Ms. Campbell said.

Program III, "The Church and the Law," will be performed at 2 p.m. Sunday. It focuses on the "structures within which they live before the modern revolution brought in fresh air," Mr. Witcover said.

The only thing the stories share is their portrayal of the frustration and humor of small town life in Ireland during the first half of the 20th century.

"A lot [of the stories] are about people who are stuck," said the 69-year-old director. "They live in a provincial society; they're not sophisticated. They can't find their fullest expression within the rigidity of society."

In keeping with the author's literary style, each story opens with a narrative.

"O'Connor tried to revive the ancient style of storytelling," Mr. Witcover said. "He was concerned with the intimacy of talking directly to you, someone really talking to you."

The innovative production is minimalist, using only the barest of props and lots of imagination.

"A bench turns into a bed, then into a fireplace," Ms. Campbell said. "They use mime to simulate eating at a large restaurant or warming themselves over a fire or wolfing down whiskey in a bar. Because their acting style is so detailed, you really believe they're eating or drinking. It's fun watching them create."

The cast also is minimal. Eight actors fill 85 roles.

"In one story, one actor can be an old woman and then a young lover," Ms. Campbell said. "They're very versatile, very Stanislavsky in how they work on the fine details."

The engrossing project was conceived three years ago by the New York studio.

Masterworks Laboratory Theatre "is not a producing theater; it's a developing theater for artists and professionals," Mr. Witcover said of the company, which has presented 25 projects in 25 years.

"We don't have spectacle or money. We have imagination. We bring fresh approaches to opera and the classics."

A former student of Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio Director's Unit in New York, Mr. Witcover flew to Dublin to get permission from O'Connor's widow, Harriet O'Donovan Sheehy.

The company "tried on" 65 of O'Connor's stories, Mr. Witcover said, reading about six each night. "They were stories we felt we could stage without damaging them. The process was very exploratory."

A year later, they decided on 13 stories and eight actors. "We cut, but we didn't add," Mr. Witcover said. "Every word you hear is O'Connor."

To maintain fluidity, the company experimented with the arrangement of words, with who would speak and with different approaches for the narrator.

L It then presented a series of studio rehearsals for friends.

One of those guests was Valerie Costantini, a student at Mr. Witcover's Baltimore studio who is also producer of HCC's Outback Theatre and Smith Theatre and division chairperson of the Performing Art Series.

"I fell in love with it," Ms. Costantini said. "It touches the humanity we all experience, funny and sad things."

She immediately decided to bring it to the Outback. "I wanted to do at Outback new works, things that are more risky, a little on the edge," she said.

The Outback structure also provides an intimacy that is compatible with experimental theater. Aisles became entrances as 50 seats were removed to give the performers more room and bring the audience closer.

Although the small theater isn't restricted to presenting plays with mass appeal, the show opened last weekend to sellout audiences.

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