Message of one-act plays of yesteryear still timely


October 21, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Some things, sadly, never go out of date. One of the two short protest plays currently at Performance Workshop Theatre Company was written 85 years ago and the other, two decades ago, but as this production proves, these anti-war and anti-torture commentaries couldn't be more timely.

The one-acts also couldn't be more dissimilar stylistically. Edna St. Vincent Millay's 1919 Aria da Capo mixes elements of commedia dell'arte with what could be described as a pastoral tragedy. Harold Pinter's 1984 One for the Road is a journalistically blunt account of torture.

Although Millay's playlet is the more artful and theatrical of the two, it is Pinter's brutally harsh play that is receiving the more polished production. Performance Workshop Theatre has a proven track record with Pinter, whose abundant use of pauses has made him fodder for parodies. In this case, however, director Marlyn G. Robinson handles the pauses so deftly, they're almost more frightening than the dialogue. (For that matter, even the curtain call is scary in this production.)

Set in the office of a government official in an unnamed country, the play consists of his interrogation of a political prisoner (Jesse Tallyen), his wife (Teresa M. Altoz) and son (Thomas Bowers). Each scene is a one-on-one exchange, although Marc Horwitz, as the interrogator, does most of the talking.

Rarely raising his voice, Horwitz speaks in slow, measured tones, adopting a menacing cheerfulness each time he pours another shot of whiskey into his cut-crystal glass and proclaims: "One for the road."

Robinson shows the audience some mercy by presenting the interrogation of the son as an offstage recorded scene. Considering how difficult it is to sit through the rest of this bleak material, one can only imagine how much more gruesome it would be to actually see the character of the child.

Far from the documentary feel of Pinter's play, Millay's Aria da Capo opens with a perky commedia scene between the stock characters of Columbine (Altoz) and Pierrot (Tallyen). The scene is interrupted by the voice of Cothurnus, a Greek tragic figure (Horwitz), who calls for two other characters - a pair of shepherds played by Ira L. Gamerman and Paul Baron - to take the stage.

The actors protest that it's too soon, but Cothurnus' omnipotent-sounding voice insists. And so, the childlike shepherds come out and play a game that starts with the building of a wall between them. Before long, the game turns ugly, and the friendship turns into distrust, greed and finally, violence.

When Pierrot and Columbine return, the set is littered with remnants of death and destruction. After a few minor adjustments, however, the clowns restart their play ("da capo" is musical terminology for "from the top"), consciously overlooking the bloodshed that has interrupted their revels.

Millay structured this short play so that the contrast between its pretty framework and fatal centerpiece would accentuate her message about the danger of turning a blind eye. This stylistic mix is delicate stuff to pull. And overall, Horwitz's directorial hand - and particularly Tallyen's portrayal of Pierrot - is too heavy to make the contrast as striking as it might be.

The director does make one especially interesting choice, however. He portrays the character of Cothurnus while seated in the audience. By becoming one of us, he turns everyone in the audience into a silent accessory. The effect may not be as overtly upsetting as Pinter's One for the Road, but it's still enough to make you squirm.

Show times at Performance Workshop Theatre, 28 E. Ostend St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays (no performance this Sunday), through Nov. 7. Tickets are $17. (Each Sunday matinee is followed by a free audience discussion led by representatives of Amnesty International, which is co-sponsoring the production, and the Women in Black, an international peace movement.) Call 410-659-7830 or visit

At 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Horwitz will assume a very different guise - that of Edgar Allan Poe - when he performs readings of Poe's "Annabel Lee" and "The Tell-Tale Heart" on the 37th floor, Top of the World Observation Level, the World Trade Center, 401 E. Pratt St. Jeff Jerome, curator of the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, will moderate a discussion after the performance.

Tickets are $12 for adults, $6 for children ages 8-12, in advance; $15 and $8 at the door. For more information, visit or call 410-837-VIEW.

Theatre Project events

Two special events are coming up at the Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., in connection with Domestic Violence Month. Whispers, Marsha Becker's one-woman show based on interviews with more than 100 survivors of domestic abuse, will be performed at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15 and all proceeds benefit the House of Ruth.

And at 8 p.m. Oct. 30, there will be a free reading and discussion of a play by the late Rebecca Rice, an actress, writer and teacher who was associated with Center Stage and Washington's Arena Stage.

The play, Waiting in Vain, was inspired by a news account about an African-American teenage girl whose life ended tragically. The discussion will focus on ways to continue Rice's mission of using theater to promote social change.

For more information on either event, call 410-752-8558.

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