'Pilgrims' takes a too long journey into night Theater review: Seven characters miss the boat in more ways than one.

March 15, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

With NASA scientists claiming we may discover life in other solar systems within 25 years, a play about a group of wacky characters brought together by reports of a UFO landing seems, well, considerably less wacky.

Len Jenkin's "Pilgrims of the Night," produced by Mother Lode Productions at the Theatre Project, is a gently endearing, if overly long, evening of theater that gives its cast of seven a chance to demonstrate a broad range of dramatic skills.

The play's contrived situation concerns a half-dozen travelers in the unspecified rural North who miss the last ferry and wind up stranded in the ferry terminal overnight. Poor Tom (Larry Malkus), the sad-sack who runs the terminal, serves as narrator, introducing us to this oddball crew.

There's Samuel Sundown (Michael Keating), an omen-spouting, ailing ex-porno star, who's also an ex-monk; Lily Black (Bethany Hoffman), a tough city girl who writes for a journal of "astro-archaeology"; Ray T. Fox (Joseph Riley), a former car thief turned slasher film producer and promoter; Professor Hubert (Bruce Nelson), a magician/con artist, and his assistant, Zoe (Carmel Lewis); and Viva (Carol Mason), the ferryboat captain's wife, a dancer who, even in this motley company, manages to come across as the most eccentric.

From the eponymous names of the characters to the device of stranding them in a room together, this sounds like the setup for an Agatha Christie mystery. Instead, Jenkin emulates the style established by Paul Sills' 1971 Broadway play, "Story Theatre," in which the actors both tell and act out a series of stories in this case, to pass the time.

In this respect, the play is at least as beholden to Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" as it is to the world of science fiction.

Though the stories range from a tale about a mad scientist to one about a career girl turned into a zombie by an evil Caribbean entrepreneur, they have several things in common. They share an element of the supernatural. And, as the evening progresses, characters from one story begin drifting into another, reinforcing the theme that, like the folks in these seemingly far-fetched tales, we are all somehow connected.

Guest director Rose Burnett Bonczek, who has had considerable experience staging Jenkin's work; set designer Will Rosebro; and props masters Cathy and Emily Weeks emphasize the childlike storytelling aura by using such rudimentary props as aluminum pie plates and, most inspired, a rope that extends across the front of the stage, which, when raised, represents rising water, drowning all but the pure of heart.

The nature of the material gives actors like Nelson a chance to display a talent for accents as diverse as lilting Caribbean and mad-scientist Transylvanian. And in some cases, the stories seem to bring out the true nature of their performers. As the magician's assistant, for example, Lewis' Zoe tries to appear hard as nails, but after portraying the trusting career woman-turned-zombie in one story, and in another, a retarded girl forced to perform in a sideshow, she discovers a softer side that leads her into the arms of Malkus' kindhearted Poor Tom.

In the end, however, there are simply too many stories, told in too dilatory a fashion. After sharing these stories, the play's pilgrims seem to be better people and so, presumably, are we. But the pilgrims have an entire night to fill; we're only in it for a couple of hours that begin to feel like an entire night.

'Pilgrims of the Night'

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; through March 24

Tickets: $14

Call: (410) 752-8558

Pub Date: 3/15/96

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