The University of Alabama at Huntsville Theatre Department is running the Christopher Durang one-act, ‘Dentity Crisis, this week in Studio 106 at Morton Hall. This is an enjoyable, almost nonsensical, 45 minutes of theatre, which well displays why Durang is so popular in university theatre groups. If you discard your usual sense of plot and character at the door, and just let the experience wash over you, you will leave the theatre with a smile on your lips, and your mind a-whirl.
Durang is an icon of American theatre, graduating from the Yale School of Drama in the 70s, with a Masters in Playwrighting, and winning numerous awards for his work, to include a Tony and numerous Obies, and in contention for Pulitzers. He is currently the co-chair of Playwrighting at Julliard. But let’s be frank–his plays are weird. It’s hard to categorize his style–absurd, deconstructive, post-modern–any of those could be applied in various ways, to his many scripts. Certainly, there is a range of “weirdness” to his works. At one end of the spectrum, the most “realistic” side, is the show that Theatre Huntsville is going to perform in January–Vanya & Sasha & Masha & Spike–for which he won his Tony in 2013. At the other end, are most of his one-acts, like this one–‘Dentity Crisis. This review is going to be a bit longer than normal, because this play is not easy to describe and critique in the usual ways.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around the daughter of a family who is having a nervous breakdown, nursed along by her mother, and receiving counseling from a shrink. The problem is that the daughter can’t keep straight in her head the identities of everyone else, but that may be because they all keep changing who they are. Her brother is also her father and grandfather and a visiting French count, and her mother is attracted to all four of them. The shrink swaps genders with his/her spouse, and the actors playing the two, swap personalities and clothes. Who are the real crazies in this house? Who are we? What is more important–how others identify us, or how we identify ourselves? How are we supposed to survive in a confusing world that often has no meaning? In the end, the daughter is cured in the only way possible in this crazy environment. Many theories about the “meaning” of the show have been floated. Is it an indictment of psychiatric methods? Is it a statement on how we all have different identities, or masks, that we constantly swap around? Durang himself implies that it’s a reflection on how “crazy” is often a very logical reaction to an insane environment. Who knows? Maybe it’s all of those things.
This production is the Senior Capstone project for the Director, Kailey Burkhardt, who was so amazing in the lead role of Eurydice at UAH last spring. She certainly did not pick an easy show to direct. On the one hand, all the usual challenges of building character motivations and objectives through the course of a play can go out the window with a show like this, because the characters turn on a dime. On the other hand, there is still some crafting and molding that has to be done so that in each individual moment it is still “real”, or the actors will just take the craziness and run away with it. Campiness, and playing for laughs, have to be avoided. There are definitely laughs to be had, but the actors don’t have to work for them, because they are in the script. If there isn’t a sure, guiding hand, the performances turn into caricatures, and it all just becomes goofiness, which actually undercuts the dramatic effect of Durang’s script.
This particular production starts out a bit off-kilter from what it should be, but does build nicely from there. Ideally, the audience should be eased into things, and the top of the show should be breezy and light, and as truly realistic as possible. The mom should almost be like a 1950s TV-sitcom mother–“everything is fine, and there’s nothing we can’t solve in 30 minutes”. Durang wrote the first scene between the daughter and mother to start off rather normal, with the odd items slowly creeping in and ramping up over time. Unfortunately for the start of the show, the mother is playing creepy and almost noir, like Bogart is about to make an entrance. But, even with the start a little off-point, the craziness does ramp up, and Burkhardt does a really fine job of controlling the insanity once the pretense of normality disappears.
The cast, overall, does nice work with very difficult parts. Amelia Enix, as the daughter, “Jane”, who is the one sane person in an insane environment, very well engages the audience’s interest and empathy, as she struggles to find her sense of self. Mary Segal, as the mother, “Edith”, has the very difficult job of NOT changing who she is, but reacting realistically and believably to everyone else constantly switching and changing personas, and she makes it look easy. Davis Walker, as the brother/father/grandfather/count, “Robert”, gets to perform an actor’s dream role, switching between four different personas, often all within the space of just a few lines. This is NOT an easy part to play, and I’m sure this has been a huge learning experience for this young actor. His physical distinctions between the son and grandfather are occasionally muddy, and his grandfather and Count lose some vocal clarity, but overall, he does a fine job, and gets some of the biggest laughs. Christopher Wilson, as the shrink, is clearly having a lot of fun, and supports the show’s requirements nicely. Stella Broussard, as the shrink’s…wife?…probably has the best stage presence of the group, and commands her role with ease.
The technical elements are superb throughout. The set, designed by Burkhardt and Bakari Prigg, is in an alley configuration, and is very well done, providing Burkhardt with several nice acting spaces to use. The lighting, by Ronnie Foreman, does an admirable job of painting the spaces and focusing audience attention. Kaylie Miller’s costumes are well done, and she meets the challenge of the costume-swapping requirements with ease. The music and sound effects, by Hayden Miller, are perfect, with some subtle touches that nicely work on the audience’s subconscious in concert with the performance. This is a challenging show for the stage manager, Savannah Rutherford, and while the timing of the top of the show and some of the blackout cues seemed over-long on opening night, those bumps will be smoothed over as the run continues.
Performances of ‘Dentity Crisis run through this Saturday, 1 October, in the basement of Monroe Hall on the UAH campus. Find the time to see this show. If you don’t know Durang, this is a nice introduction to a quirky playwright. If you do know his work, you’re already aware that you just relax and enjoy the fun. Tickets for this 45-minute show, are $5. Information and show times can be found at this link.
A (shorter) version of this review is on AL.com, at this link.
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