Saturday, March 23, 2013

Balm in Gilead at Studio 58

As I've written in a previous post, playwright Lanford Wilson and producer/cultural impresario/all-round force of nature Ellen Stewart (who died within months of each other in 2011) more or less invented Off-Off-Broadway. When Wilson's Balm in Gilead opened at Stewart's La Mama ETC in 1965 and became an instant hit, New Yorkers suddenly cottoned on to the Lower Eastside as a destination for cutting-edge theatre. Vancouver audiences can see what all the fuss was about by heading to Studio 58's current production of the play, on through April 7th. 

Balm in Gilead is set in an all-night diner in New York City frequented by prostitutes, hustlers, junkies, pushers, and the generally destitute. It is famous for its overlapping dialogue; director Bob Frazer and set designer Naomi Sider have additionally emphasized the immersive qualities of the play by placing  most of the audience within booths that form part of the stage space, and that at various moments might be occupied by different characters in the play. It is a most effective choice, as it gives us the opportunity, depending on where we look, to eavesdrop on the multiple mini-dramas that overlap, intersect, and divide the denizens of the diner, an acoustic roundelay that, together with the singing in the round that weaves throughout the two acts, highlights the cyclical structure of Wilson's play and the downward spirals of most of the characters' lives.

That's not to say that individual actors in the large ensemble cast don't get a chance to shine in the spotlight, and standout monologues include those by Stephaie Izsak as schoolteacher-turned-prostitute Ann, Patrick Mercado as a wise and observant Dopey, and especially Chirag Naik as the hopped-up junkie Fick. Even actors who have only a few lines of dialogue still dazzle with their physical presence: Julie Leung, for example, is mesmerizing as Babe, a heroin addict whom we watch shoot up at the top of the play and thereafter spend the rest of Act 1 trying not to fall off her counter stool.

There is a plot buried in all of this, one that concerns the doomed romance between Joe (Chris Cope), a small-time pusher who runs afoul of a bigger dealer, and Darlene (Masae Day), a naive young transplant from Chicago. Act 2 opens with a 20-minute monologue by Darlene describing her former boyfriend, an albino, and their planned marriage that somehow never came to pass. It made a star of Laurie Metcalf when the play was revived in 1984 in Circle Rep/Steppenwolf Theatre coproduction directed by John Malkovich. Unfortunately, it doesn't hit the right notes of wide-eyed humour and heart-breaking pathos in this production because Day's performance, here and elsewhere, is a bit too flat and affectless. This is a problem in an otherwise compelling production, as Darlene is meant to be the empathetic soul of the play.


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