When in Rome, drama follows

Academy: A cast of all midshipmen admirably tackles a contemporary, dialogue-heavy play.


Howard Live

November 20, 2003|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

With John Guare's Chaucer in Rome, the Naval Academy's Masqueraders offer a play that is new to the Annapolis region. Guare's 1999 work presents thought-provoking reflections on contemporary society, liberally spiced with absurdity.

Guare's title choice may spring from the similarity of his recounting tales of modern-day pilgrims seeking absolution to those of medieval pilgrims chronicled in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Guare's three protagonists are recipients of the Prix de Rome, working at the American Academy in Rome. Artist Matt has undergone skin-cancer surgery, and his recuperation prompts a career change. Helping Matt through this crisis is girlfriend Sarah, an art curator, and their friend - art historian Pete.

The play begins with the trio hearing the cigar-smoking surgeon advise Matt to avoid using toxic paints, shattering news to this artist who mixes his own lethal blend.

Matt confronts his career alternatives during a week described by visiting Father Shapiro (here as narrator) as a time when millions of pilgrims are entering Rome while the city also play host to a celebration of international Gay Pride, the filming of a Martin Scorsese epic, an annual fashion week of top designers and a Hustler photo shoot.

Masqueraders director Christy Stanlake has chosen an enormously ambitious undertaking in this two-act play, with a largely absurdist first act followed by interspersed hilarity and intense drama.

The opening scene has four pilgrims stationed statue-like in a minimalist set containing a generic Roman fountain that provides an opening backdrop.

Amid the action, Stanlake uses a half-dozen monitors and large-screen projection TV to depict the frenzy of Rome in 2000.

The all-student cast has the difficult task of humorously portraying largely superficial characters who don't initially engage the audience.

Frank Ramirez is brilliant as Matt's devoted friend Pete, who finds Matt a successful career at a high price to himself. At one point, energy-charged Ramirez bounds off the stage in flight from his parents, soon reappearing in the side balcony where he continues his raging monologue against them.

Jeff Gelzinis is excellent as self-centered, shallow artist Matt, moving from a relative innocent to a celebrity without conscience. Stephanie Hoffman captures Sarah's distinctive blend of assertive professionalism and private vulnerability.

C.J. Mantilla is often hilarious as pivotal character Father Shapiro and as the detached, pragmatic physician, delivering much of his characters' dialogue in acceptable Italian.

Actors are required to move from comic portrayals in the first act to the probing drama of the second. Two actors who excel in both acts are Cassidy Rasmussen, playing Pete's mother, Dolo, and Brad Thompson, who plays Pete's father, Ron. As tourists, both bring the United States - including home-cooked food - with them, seeing the Eternal City through their limited vision. Later, Rasmussen and Thompson transform themselves into complex, disturbed individuals in a confessional scene.

Pitfalls abound in this demanding production with a multitude of philosophical and art-world ideas inundating the audience in an often too-wordy script. The student-actors succeed admirably in this dialogue-heavy play, but the production could be improved by cutting some of the Italian dialogue. Although it may lend an authentic element to the Roman setting, it won't work if the Italian is halting and sometimes mispronounced.

Performances are scheduled for tomorrow and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Naval Academy's Mahan Hall. All seats are $10. Tickets: 410-293-8497.

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