Heavy-handed treatment makes for ponderous melodrama
|Strangeloop Theatre presents|
Review by Joy Campbell
Friedrich Schiller’s style of romantic classicism has garnered him comparisons to Shakespeare. Indeed, in Strangeloop’s production of his first play, The Robbers, we see themes reminiscent of Shakespeare’s tragedies: betrayal, patricide, fratricide, bloody unrest, tortured love and, of course, a nice pile of bodies in the final act.
In Strangeloop’s ambitious production the show is cast entirely with women, who play both male and female roles. The purpose of this is unclear; had the male characters been changed to female for a nontraditional treatment of power roles, this might have been a genuinely interesting approach that opened creative possibilities, but simply having women play men adds nothing to the story. Count von Moor (Pat Parks) has two sons. Charles (Holly Robison), is the favored older, free-spirited brother. His grasping younger brother, Francis (Margo Chervony), contrives a deceit that convinces his father that Charles is leading a debauched, indebted life and has shamed the family by abandoning his pledge to his fiancée, Amelia (Letitia Guillaud). In a pretext of concern for his brother, Francis encourages his distraught father to employ some tough love on Charles and withdraw financial support for his own good. Francis then pens a letter to Charles in his father’s name telling him that he has actually been disowned. The innocent Charles, in despair, reacts by forming a band of robbers to live, Robin-Hood style, in the Bohemian Forest, from where they fight authority with murder and arson. His goal is to bring about social justice, but the resultant killing and mayhem leads a stricken Charles to deeply regret his choice.
Francis, meanwhile, has gotten rid of his father and taken over not only his rule, but also the lovely and unwilling Amelia, Charles’s betrothed. In the end Charles is revenged, but it is a bittersweet victory and, well, as all tragedies do, it ends unhappily.
There are some decent performances: Count von Moor is a Lear-like character brought low by filial infidelity. Parks does a solid job of conveying the grief and anguish over his loss as well as the ensuing mental breakdown at his brutal treatment by Francis. As Father Dominic she ably captures the facetiousness of Schiller’s words when dealing with an irreverent and ranting Francis, demonstrating a good understanding of the script and a comfort with the language.
Also entertaining are Stefanie Johnsen as the fiercely loyal “no guts no glory” Schweitzer; Morgan Manasa as the simple Hermann, and Moira Begale as Spiegelberg, who do solid jobs of creating distinct characters. The main flaw – and it’s a fatal one – is that as Charles and Francis, Robison and Chervony are fairly one-note, leaving unfulfilled the complex character demands of the script. As Francis, Chervony overplays devious and sinister, marginalizing the contrast between Francis’ put-on Good Son act and his scheming soliloquies: Chervony starts out full-bore and full volume and keeps it that way throughout the show. It’s clear from the script that Francis is supposed to be a Bad-Seed style master of manipulation, but he’s played with all the subtlety of a Marvel arch-villain. In contrast to Francis’ line, “away with the troublesome mask of humility and virtue,” which implies he wore one, Chervony shows little subtlety or believable nicety, and the overused yelling gets tiresome. It’s possible that director Gunter is attempting to underscore the play’s Sturm and Drang sensibilities, but with all the dark plot lines, the script hardly needs melodramatic acting to accomplish this. Chervony does have great expression and tons of good energy and presence. With some reining in and direction toward a lighter-handed approach and varied portrayal and a more gradual progression toward her character’s breakdown, she could deliver a more satisfying performance.
As Charles, Robison gets bogged down in heavy delivery, losing the natural emotions of the character, and the nuances that show his inner conflict. While Francis is supposed to be a melancholy man, this has unfortunately been interpreted as being the only aspect of the character. Each line is delivered with grim determination, so that moments of wistfulness, regret, and despair are drained of their emotional impact. In the final scene, Charles’ actions are especially confusing given the almost Brechtian disconnect between the words and emotional context as delivered.
Finally, at three hours this play is far too long. This can’t be laid solely at the feet of the production; the script is no short work. Much could have been trimmed; many of the numerous soliloquies of Charles and Francis in particular could have been eliminated or edited substantially. This would bring the show to a less arduous length and reduce the demands on the performers, whose weaknesses were most evident during these existential ponderings. Tackling the classics is no small feat; unfortunately, this production isn’t up to the challenge.
The Robbers continues through May 26th at Side Project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $15, and are available by phone (773-757-6689) or online through BrownPaperTickets.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at StrangeLoopTheatre.org. (Running time: 3 hours, includes an intermission)
Photos by Austin D. Oie
Pat Parks (Old Moor, Father Dominic, Pastor Moser), Margo Chervony (Francis), Holly Robison (Charles), Letitia Guillaud (Amelia), Moira Begale (Spiegelberg), Stefanie Johnsen (Schweitzer), Carrie Campana (Grimm), Allison McCorkle (Razmann, Daniel), Morgan Manasa (Hermann, Schwartz), Jaclyn Jensen (Roller, Kosinsky)
behind the scenes
Brad Gunter (director), Maria Burnham (stage manager), Ashley Ann Woods (costume designer), Leigh Barret (lighting designer), Glen Anderson (scenic designer), Michael Wagman (sound designer), Libby Beyreis (violence designer), Keith Gatchel (technical director), Dustin Spence (production manager), Lisa Ulig (assistant director, prop designer), Zack Florent (graphic designer), Austin D. Oie (photographer), Linus Lee (marketing director)