October 04, 2010

Afternoon Triple Header
by Greg Boyle

The Coterie Theatre opened its 32nd season last week with a finely wrought, suspenseful set of thrillers titled Science Fiction Triple Feature. It is comprised of three short stories from the sci-fi genre adapted for the stage. Being a fan of that literary form, I was lucky enough to be familiar with all of the stories, and was extremely pleased with how well the Coterie translated them to the stage.

From By the Waters of Babylon: Members of the tribe with Elder Priest – center (Martin Buchanan) and (l to r) Dayton Hollis, Vanessa Severo, Demetrius Hodges and Allison Banks.

The Coterie Theatre might actually be limiting itself by being known as a children’s theatre. As such, it has been recognized by Time magazine as one of the top five children’s theatres in the United States. However, this show, as with many others produced by Coterie, is a high quality theatrical experience for people of any age. It is labeled “young adult series,” but I believe children age 8 and up would understand nearly everything that transpires, especially because some of the performers are very young.

The production opens with The Veldt by Ray Bradbury, a futuristic view of what many parents complain of today — children spending too much time with their electronic toys. As George, Martin Buchanan strikes a funny opening chord with a Leave It to Beaver/Father Knows Best kind of pipe smoking dad who is sure that he has everything under control — until things get out of control. As Lydia, Vanessa Severo gives us another glimpse of her mastery of the tightly wound wife. As the children Peter and Wendy, Dayton Hollis and Allison Banks give low-key performances that give us a hint of the badly socialized automatons that these kids have become. Rusty Sneary ably portrays the psychologist who recognizes the danger too late. This first show sets us up very nimbly for the Twilight Zone kinds of twists that the plots of this trio of stories will take.

The second of the triplet is Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes, made into an Academy Award winning role for Cliff Robertson as Charly in 1968. This segment belongs to Sneary. As Charly, the mentally challenged man who gets a chance to be a genius, Sneary gives us a nuanced, wide-ranging tour de force performance. You can see and hear Charly getting smarter with the subtle changes in Sneary’s speech patterns and body language. His emotions are worn on his sleeve when Charly has a low IQ, and complex and conflicted as the man’s intelligence soars. The rest of the cast performs their supporting roles extremely well. Severo as the teacher, who urges Charly to take a chance, clearly reveals the turmoil she experiences for doing so. Buchanan as Dr. Strauss does a wonderful job of presenting an ambitious researcher whose motives might be slightly suspect. Demetrius Hodges gives the research assistant, Bert, a profoundly open and kind heart, which might not happen too often in a real research milieu, but was the right choice here.

The last of the triumvirate is called By the Waters of Babylon by Stephen Vincent Benet. This is the oldest of the stories, having been written in 1931. The other two segments had been produced as radio plays, and so scripts already existed. This is presented almost exactly as written by the author Benet. It works well because while the language is somewhat stilted, the narrative style used by the author unfolds comfortably as a saga. We again get Sneary as the central character living in a Stone Age world. He sets off on what various primitive cultures would refer to as a vision quest, or walkabout. It is his time to prove himself as a man, and establish his place in his tribe. What he discovers is shocking to his people, and to us. They will never be the same, and we learn something that we wish we could forget.

Jeff Church is the Producing Artistic Director of the Coterie, and the science fiction concept was his original idea. He directs this show with a balanced hand, extracting finely tuned and varied performances from his cast. But that isn’t all a director has to do; there are more than 300 light and sound cues for this production of one hour 15 minutes. The director has to ok every one. The job of executing those cues was handled marvelously by Amy Abels Owen, the production stage manager. The one-size-fits-all abstract set by Scott Hobart does a marvelous job of portraying all the various environments required.

My only quibble was wishing for another voice besides Sneary’s for the third segment. Having just been up to the tippy top and back to the bottom with him as Charly, I was ready to have a new face to carry the last story. Regardless, it was a terrific afternoon, and it is well worth seeing with your kids or your adult friends.

Science Fiction Triple Feature is playing at the Coterie Theater on the ground level of Crown Center through Oct. 17. For reservations call the box office at 816-474-6552, or go online at www.coterietheatre.org.

Greg Boyle may be contacted at gbboyle@kc.rr.com.

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