review: a room with a view

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

A ROOM WITH A VIEW

by Christina Calvit
based on the novel by E.M. Forster
Directed by Dorothy Milne
Lifeline Theatre
6912 N. Glenwood Avenue / (773) 761-4477
www.lifelinethatre.com
Through December 3, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
October 23, 2006

Lifeline Theatre continues its mission of developing creative adaptation of Western literature for the stage with his latest offering, “A Room With A View.” This is not a staged evocation of a filmed version one might have seen of this story, nor is this a staged reading that focuses all of our attention on Forster’s closely crafted language and nuanced observations of class and society and character and the foibles of the British striving upper middle class or complacent upper class. This piece involves earnest (and often amusing) pronouncements of intent, of social restraint, of social embarrassments – a perfect evocation of a time, of a class, of a set of behaviors. The textual adaptation works and highlights for the ear the endless treats of Forster’s novel. However, this adaptation never quite takes flight, despite numerous delightful moments and many sweet performances, perhaps due to the difficult task of balancing the physical delight and absurdity of swings and flowing modernistic Martha Graham-like rolls of fabric with period costumes. The journey is worth the effort yet the spirit does not quite soar.

Young Lucy (the compelling young Hillary Clemens) is on an Italian adventure with her maiden aunt who attempts to help Lucy toe the line of social and cultural mores. As part of the British upper class (or aspiring upper middle class) abroad, we enter a world in which Lucy and her aunt and a group of traveling Brits attempt to create their own little enclave in Florence, reinforcing that one understands one’s social obligation at all times. Lucy and her companions have Italian adventures of a sort during the first act of this adaptation, then attempt to incorporate their experiences into their conventional lives back home in suburban England. The uncomplicated story involves Lucy’s suitor back home, a new acquaintance from Italy who inspires greater passion in Lucy, and how the rest of her world deals with this development. This is soap opera drama evoked with a pleasing visual palate.

Lucy alone speaks with direct address to the audience, underscoring that this is her story of finding her voice within the restrictions of her time and class. Trapeze work and circus swing within the set design are powerfully illustrate her character and elements of this journey. The playbill credits indicate that Nourbal Meirmanov andAlmas Meirmanov) are responsible for circus techniques and a new ensemble member Paul S. Holmquist has provided consulting to create these lovely theatrical movement moments. Lucy first appears to us on a swing, hanging askew, miming piano playing, illustrating in a simple, theatrical manner her romantic and loving spirit. Throughout most of the play, only Lucy inhabits this suspended plane of the action (and when someone joins her there, we know that this illustrates a meeting of mind and spirit). Has piano playing ever before been mimed by a woman in Victorian dress seated on a swing above the rest of the action in a playing area? Sweet and swinging and …. Free.

The key to the characters as a group in this story is tone: imperious, earnest, clueless, not really curious about the world in Italy (not heeding one character’s comment that “The true Italy is only to be found through patient observation”). And our characters are for the most part not all that curious about the suburban world in which they dwell back in England. In this world, ladies are to inspire men to achieve rather than work to achieve for themselves. And most characters would probably agree with the observation that “the middle class is improving at the most appalling rate.” We do indeed root for the fair-minded Lucy, who tells us that she always thinks that there is “something to admire about everyone, even if I don’t respect them.”

The entire ensemble is solid. Especially luminous in this production are Hillary Clemens, Bryson Engelen as George, the stalwart interloper into Lucy’s arranged life, and Sandy Snyder as Charlotte Bartlett. The actress who plays Eleanor (Morgan McCabe) carries the luminous grace and slight dottiness of the actress Rosemary Harris.

A stage moment between Lucy and George on a country hillside intended to evoke true feeling amidst sunshine and a field of violets amidst a confetti shower moved me tremendously. This lovely theatrical moment is much like a similar “shower” I observed in a production of “M. Butterfly” at Washington DC’s Arena Stage involving pink paper confetti cherry blossoms. Moments like this can only be achieved on stage and can stop the heart — give us pause and remind us why we attend theatre rather than always watch images march before us on static screens.

Set design by J Branson, light design by John Sanchez, and original music and sound design by Victoria DeIoria create a magical visual world. The set flows with swaths of fabric and color and a lighting design that bathes different sections of the playing area in pools of light. Projections highlight corners of statuary or modernistic images or city squares or country lawns. The modernistic, dance like feel of the fabric curtains and lighting pools and circus apparatus stand in stark contrast to the literary and primarily period costumes by Elizabeth Powell Shaffer and conventional stage actions such as miming movement in a car. The mixture of styles did not work as an integrated whole, yet serves to highlight the elements I found most enjoyable: dancing with curtains, sweeping flows of fabric, young men swimming in a forest pool evoked with fabric and shadows and light; and the trapeze. With these few caveats, this production is yet another in the long line of productions that make a journey to North Glenwood Avenue worth the effort.

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 23, 2006)

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