Dark matter

Sympathetic Magic

By Lanford Wilson
Directed by Sean Dillon
Ailanthus Theatre Company
St. Ann’s and Holy Trinity Church
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by John Chatterton

It is a commonplace that stage lighting should set a mood and indicate changes of place and time. But the primary purpose of staged lighting is often overlooked, perhaps because it’s so obvious: to illuminate the actor’s face.

Sympathetic Magic was staged in a church hall, with the action on two levels: the stage proper and the floor in front of it. The action was lit (by Shana Solomon) by seven instruments on two towers in the audience, with the result that light on the actors’ faces ranged from harsh one-sidedness to deep gloom. While it was admirable to try for a multilevel set (by Mallory Larson), there was not enough light to illuminate all of the acting areas with even one instrument, let alone the two required by simple journeyman lighting.

The story intertwines the lives of an astronomer, Andy (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper); his girlfriend, Barbara (Stephania Chavara), a sculptor; her brother, Don, an Episcopalian priest (Joby Earle); and Barbara and Don’s mother, Liz (Deborah Harris). Incidental characters are Sue (Mary Hershkowitz), Liz’s typist; Pauly, music director of Don’s church (Bryan Rucker); Mickey, Andy’s assistant (Corey Pierno); and Carl, Andy and Mickey’s boss (Peter Levine). The story takes place in and around San Francisco and Stanford University.

Wilson’s strength is in creating an action by triangulation. He doesn’t have a straightforward plot, but by showing many interactions between different characters, an overall impression develops. In Sympathetic Magic, the chief concerns are Andy’s research into objects at the edge of what he mockingly calls “the known universe”; Don and Pauly’s stressed parish, in which Don hopes to build a hospice (his parishioners, gay and otherwise, consist largely of artists and other marginal people); and Barbara’s pregnancy. By play’s end, Liz, a world-renowned anthropologist, who has been going blind, turns out to have AIDS (and will probably end up in Don’s hospice); Barbara has had an abortion, for which act Andy beats her up in a restaurant full of scientist colleagues; and Andy’s boss has simultaneously stepped up to take credit for Andy’s discovery and had Andy banished to the outer reaches of his discipline. Wilson cleverly prefigures all these incidents while focusing the audience’s attention on seemingly unrelated details, adding to the pleasure that comes from seeing the unexpected unfold out of the familiar. If there is any cavil to the storytelling, it is that after Andy’s outburst everything else seems anticlimactic.

The actors generally came to grips with the basic traits of their characters: Barbara’s fiery independence, Andy’s enthusiastic brilliance, Don’s earnestness, Pauly’s politically correct rebelliousness, Liz’s salty iconoclasm, Carl’s slimy conservatism, Mickey’s insecurity. Some actors transcended the difficulties of staging in the ease with which they fit into their roles, while others seemed less credible in their transitions and whether they actually listened to their scene partners. In addition to the problems of lighting brought about by spreading the action too thin, scenes were staged with much upstaging and awkward, static groupings. The transitions between scenes were mechanically smooth, though sometimes scenes ended abruptly, without a “button.” The scenery comprised a few tables, a comfortable chair, and a crude lectern, with some screens on the stage behind which actors collected between scenes.

It is not appropriate to tell artists how to solve their problems, but this production cried out to be staged on the stage itself, with the audience and lights brought forward. Not only would the staging have benefited from the increased intimacy, but the audience would have been able to see the actors’ work. (Sound design: Jason Weiner. Fight director: Corey Pierno.)

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 0
Acting: 1
Set: 0
Costumes: 1
Lighting: 0/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2006 John Chatterton