theater (reviews)

review: spinning into butter

[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-SPINNING.html]

SPINNING INTO BUTTER

by Rebecca Gilman
Directed by Anish Jethmalani
Eclipse Theatre Company at Victory Gardens Theater
2257 North Lincoln Avenue / (773) 335-1650
www.eclipsetheatre.com
Through September 3, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
July 27, 2006

The second of three productions in Eclipse Theatre Company‘s Rebecca Gilman season is currently running upstairs at the Victory Gardens Theatre.“Spinning Into Butter” had its world premier at the Goodman in May 1999, opened in New York in 2000, has had numerous productions since, and soon will have wider exposure through a movie currently in post production with Sarah Jessica Parker. The play’s characters alternately are complex and too simple, the themes are unnerving and sometimes annoying, and the plot is stereotypical with unexpected twists. An audience member will not be bored with the subject matter. The challenge for this production is whether this holds together as a play.

On the campus of a remote, rural, elite, Vermont college, a student character we never see receives racist notes. Who has done this and can this be tolerated? What are the personal and organizational responsibilities of the college administrators and of the students for this act? The fact that we never meet the character against whom these events are directed is an intriguing and powerful structural choice. The clarity of this choice is then challenged by the sheer number of other characters who do inhabit the world of the play. Sarah Daniels (Kerry Richlan) provides our “home base”. Her office is the set; her professional actions and reactions are the foundation of the play’s action; her very job is to deal with the student race relations that lead to the crisis issue that must be resolved at the core of the story. Into this world come several students in addition to the absent apparent victim of racist crimes: smart, poor, minority Patrick, played by Gerardo Cardenas, and upper class white Greg, played by Joe Sherman. We also meet colleague Ross (Robert McLean) with whom Sarah has been having a fraught affair, and two other Deans who demonstrate upright, forthright, uptight Yankee sensibilities – Catherine (Cheri Chenoweth) and Burton (Larry Baldacci). A final character is straight talking and unconflicted Mr. Meyers (John Ruhaak), the voice of the common man, complete with Maine-r accent and espousing simple Yankee charm.

Through the stereotypes and witty banter, each actor finds some measure of humanity. We understand why Dean Catherine, a woman of a certain age, makes concessions to bureaucratic necessity at some points: she is a company girl. We cheer for late middle aged Burton, stuffy classicist colleague and old fling of Catherine’s, to learn a little something about diversity. We understand the youthful indignation of Patrick, who feels he is wrongfully labeled as one minority, when with age we know that some of these little battles do not ache so much. We even dredge up some sympathy for frat boy Greg who is initially inspired to good deeds to pad his law school application and then finds some unexpected meaning in his community service activities.

And then there is Sarah. We are led structurally and thematically to expect a lot of her character. Or, perhaps we think we should expect more from Sarah and that we should be happy to observe her little baby steps to self-awareness. Somehow, the pieces don’t fit as elegantly as we would like them to. This character is wound very tightly, and this provides an immense challenge to any actor worth his or her salt. How do you convey the possibilities for movement hidden within a buttoned-up, up right, apparently lefty liberal human being? Unfortunately, Richlan and the director Anish Jethmalani do not seem to have cracked this nut. Sarah the character shows us humor, tension, honest dialogue (or language her character calls honest, yet this same character is surprised when others see that language as “cynical”), and restraint. Richlan has chosen to represent these character dimensions with a physical and metaphorical squint for most of the play. This is a painful facial expression for her, I’m sure, and a challenge to audience sympathy. The character does grow in the course of the play, but we as an audience have to wait a long time for it.

By design, by choice, by attrition (most of the play’s characters essentially fall away, plot wise), we ultimately are left with the young student we never see, and Sarah and her complicated life and psyche. As noted, the play’s most moving moments may be in a final conversation between Sarah and this absent student. There is a lesson here. Many stories are told in this play, with much witty dialogue about academic personalities and pretensions, student motivations to pad their resumes for graduate school — just making do in the world of the play. Are all if these thematic strains necessarily on point for this particular dramatic tale? Perhaps this struggle with tone and “too many notes” (as my mother used to say about certain flamboyant jazz musicians) speaks to this emotional resonance of the final scene. Once the themes are prepped and action and character together are streamlined to their essence, in this final scene the dialogue and setting are spare and take place in lovely silhouette. And what action is there, as Spencer Tracy once said in another context, is “cherce”.

The design team achieves wonderful effects in this small performance space. The required collegiate feel (stone walls, heavy wooden furniture, leaded windows) is beautifully achieved by Kevin ScottSeth E. Reinick creates a lovely opaque lighting effect through these windows, and represents different times of day with some nuance. Sound design by Cecil Averett provides few surprises but some lovely interscenic entertainment. Director Anish Jethmalani moves the many actors through thirteen scenes with elegance and purpose.

We need to have these conversations to come to some answers to the social problems addressed in this play. This is a task of the thinking person in contemporary society. One task of the dramatist is to highlight these conversations and the need for them. Another task is to streamline storytelling to hone emotions. What we have here is a pile of events and people who add up to: college life is messy and prejudice is everywhere. We are provided with the endlessly provocative titular metaphor of “spinning into butter” from the tigers in the fable “Little Black Sambo” (spinning around some coveted pieces of clothing, the tigers turn themselves into butter and are in turn eaten by Sambo). It is left to us to interpret what this all means for the hullabaloo about race relations and fearful reactions to them.

Eclipse Theatre has scheduled a healthy number of post show discussions throughout the run — for those who imagine they will be provoked by the play’s themes attending those particular performances may be in order. We need to discuss the themes in general, this playwright’s treatment of them, as well as this particular production and its performance values. This is a provocative time in the theatre.

© Martha Wade Steketee (July 27, 2006)

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