When the skies of New York decide to clear up, we can be pretty sure of two summer rewards: blooming gardens and theater al fresco.
Both were visible at La Plaza Cultural community gardens, located in the East Village (9th Street between Avenues B and C). The Blunt Theatre Company's Garden Theater Festival, now in its fifth season, presents classical and classic works under the motto: "Free Theatre That Doesn't Suck." This was a humble standard ably met, and the marriage of performance and venue was more than harmonious. The Plaza's rough-hewn stone steps made a dynamic space for good theater.
The Prodigal by Jack Richardson is one of two plays produced in repertory. The story of Agamemnon's victorious return from Troy is written from the vantage of the opening years of America's Cold War. The play is incisive and timely, a conversation in statecraft during fragile times, and it proved a topical companion piece to their Baghdad-inspired Romeo and Juliet. Originally staged during the 1960 Off-Broadway season that brought Albee's Zoo Story, Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, and Genet's The Balcony, the play emerged here from under the shadow of its contemporaries to be seen by its own lights.
The Prodigal chronicles the shift of power from a war-mongering, larger-than life modernist Agamemnon (played with almost cartoon bravado by James Harley) to the bureaucrat Aegisthus (Scott Thewes), an archetype of gray-suited men who were coming to dominate the new subterranean power structures of post-War Europe. Neither comes across sympathetically, egotistically caught in the reins of power. Trapped in the tug-of-war, as in the Orestaia, is Orestes (David Dartley), Agamemnon's son and champion. This character represents the crux of Richardson's modernization, who meets the challenge as an anti-hero: plaintive, ambivalent, keeping bad company (Gustavo Alonso as the ribald and unfortunately named Pylades) in the hopes of escaping the cliches of tragedy.
Thus, Richardson's play revolves around his reading of Orestes. This is its strength and weakness. Though he is the only three-dimensional character onstage (acknowledged by the incisive Garson by playing out of mask), he seems the half-finished bastard child of Hamlet and Sartre's Orestes in Les Mouches, not approaching either in their bewitching ambivalence. Dartley met the challenge of the cowardly hero quite well, but he might do more with better material. And while classical language stays crisp, classical imitations tend to age perceptibly, showing the creaking of the verse cliches of their times. This is unfortunately true of the script, as it presents the challenge of elevated language without the reward of language well-used.
Director Kenneth Garson did an admirable job in presenting the work, choosing to highlight the classical and stilted aspects by performing in mask. This is a risky step, considering the challenges of mask theater, and the fact that the masks in question were really more Renaissance than Greek. But it all came off well. The cast met the challenge with aplomb, and the masks (created with flair by castmember Thewes) helped to elevate the energy to a level that more than competed with passing sirens, car alarms, and a great jazz bar across the street. Worth special note for exceptional mask work was a cameo by Yo Shina as Praxithia, gracefully playing the part of Orestes's failed attempt to live a simple life.
The Prodigal was great fun by an able and energetic cast, and Blunt Theatre once again provided a rare night of entertainment at the unbelievable price of no money whatsoever. Classical theatre was once again in season in the parks of New York.
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Copyright 2003 Jason Anthony