I’ve always had a soft spot for theatre done outside of the confines of a standard theatre. Often referred to as “site specific” theatre, plopping a theatrical production in a non-traditional space can lead to all sorts of interesting challenges and atmospheric influences, both for the performers and for the audience.
The Healdsburg-based Raven Players’ current season contains a trio of productions they refer to as their “Raven on the Road” series. After having performed The Taming of the Shrew at the Bear Republic Brewery and The Lady in Black at the Costeaux Bakery, they have now taken up temporary residence at the Paul Mahder Gallery where they have begun a six-performance run of Yasmina Rez’s Art.
Written in 1994 and winner of the 1998 Tony Award for Best Play, Art is the story of the friendship between three men and the how the purchase by one of them of a piece of artwork leads to debate, deceit, disgust, and perhaps the dissolution of their friendship.
Serge (Charles Noland) has spent 200 grand on a painting. It’s an all-white painting – white background, white foreground, maybe some white stripes. Marc (Steven David Martin) cannot believe his friend has done this, and seeks an ally in their mutual friend Yvan (Steve Thorpe) in trying to get Serge to acknowledge his monumental mistake. What’s going on between these three has little to do with the art of painting. It has everything to do with the art of friendship.
Mr. Martin has a field day as Marc, the alpha dog of the trio, so much so that I wondered if the Raven had to take out additional insurance to protect the gallery artwork/scenery against his chewing it up. He’s a terrific comic actor and his skills are put to good use by director Athena Gundlach. Seething anger is often played for laughs, but there’s a fine line between black humor and cartoonish comedy. Mr. Martin keeps his character just this side of Yosemite Sam.
Mr. Noland, an experienced actor with an impressive list of film and television credits, does not provide a particularly strong characterization with Serge which was disappointing because I found him to be the most interesting character in the piece. Serge seems to be teetering between the courage of his convictions and self-doubt when dealing with the onslaught of ridicule from Marc. It’s a very complex character with whom Noland only scratches the surface. Uneven delivery also didn’t help.
Steve Thorpe does a good job with his “man-in-the-middle”. You know the type – the peacekeeper, the bridge builder, the one who’ll do or say anything in the hope that everyone will get along as his own life starts to crumble. He’s a human ping-pong ball being batted about by his family and his fiancé, and can’t bear to have the same thing happen with his friends. Thorpe’s physical manifestation of the character was spot on.
I like the play a lot: its construction, its dialogue, the issues raised. Anyone who has had anything come between them and a friend (a person, politics, etc.) can relate to what’s going on. The biggest issue I had with this production has to do with its locale. While I understand and appreciate the attraction and interest that doing a show entitled Art in an actual art gallery can generate, it simply isn’t designed as a performance space. It’s a converted double Quonset hut that’s been designed – and quite nicely so – for the display of static art. The acoustics are terrible. At times, the dialogue was inaudible. At other times, it was crystal clear. It all depended on where the actor was standing.
As the audience is sitting at the same level as the performers, sight lines are also terrible. One scene involving Yvan searching for something on the floor was completely lost to anyone not seated in the front row as was another scene when the characters were seated. Audience members were too frequently having to crane their necks around the person sitting in front of them to see what was going on. Either the performance area or the audience should have been elevated. At the very least the seating should have been rearranged to allow more separation between the seats and increase the visibility of the “stage”.
I liked the play. It’s compact (80 minutes, no intermission,) wickedly funny, somewhat sad, and often very real. I like the concept of doing it in a non-traditional space and one would think an art gallery would be the perfect location. I enjoyed wandering around and looking at the pieces on display beforehand and the environment did add something to the experience – but not as much as the issues with sight and sound took away. Overall, it should be said that the audience seemed to enjoy it and laughed frequently, regardless of the physical gymnastics required to see much of it or their repeated whispering of “What did he say?” to their seat partners.
To increase your enjoyment of Art, may I suggest you get there early, wander the gallery, and then do your best to grab a front row seat.
Presented by the Raven Players
through March 18
Thur/Fri/Sat @ 8pm
Paul Mahder Gallery
222 Healdsburg Ave
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Photo by Ray Mabry