Gazette - By: Theater Review, Larry Bangs
A nice start for Unexpected Stage, a new Montgomery County theater company
by: Theater Review, Larry Bangs
It is always heartening to see a new theater company coming to life. The Unexpected Stage Company, led by Chris Goodrich and Rachel Stroud-Goodrich, is a welcome addition to Montgomery County’s arts scene. “Candy and Dorothy” is their debut at the VisArts nonprofit arts center in Rockville.
“Candy and Dorothy,” written by David Johnston, has an interesting premise. What is the “afterlife” like? Johnston’s conception: It is a place where, after leaving our corporeal bodies behind, we are assigned a case worker and go to work on personal things from our lives that were left incomplete. He also has the two main characters from the afterlife interact extensively with someone still very much alive, which makes things even more interesting.
At first glance, this play seems more than a little absurd. Candy is Candy Darling, a transsexual actress who starred in Andy Warhol’s films “Flesh” (1968) and “Women in Revolt” (1971). Dorothy is Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement who many consider a candidate for sainthood. Johnston puts these two clearly dissonant historical figures together with Candy being Dorothy’s caseworker, assigned to help her sort through her life and resolve any unfinished business.
Dorothy carries out part of her assignment by swooping into the life of Tamara, a frustrated, bright, but apparently dead-ended 30-year old librarian. Tamara, who is living on New York’s Lower East Side lower, has issues. It gets complicated quickly, so we’ll leave the plot synopsis at that.
In the words of director Chris Goodrich, this play “…is about finding a place in this world where you feel loved and accepted.” By the end of the play, they do get there, but the route they take is filled with all manner of vexing difficulties.
Goodrich has done some nice work putting this piece together. It flows seamlessly despite asking us to swallow some fairly outlandish assumptions, and it is well staged. The principal characters: Robert Sheire as Candy, Jean Miller as Dorothy, and Dawn Thomas as Tamara, were uniformly solid. Each has moments to shine during the play and they work well together.
I was impressed with how well they handled what might be the most difficult thing an actor has to do: listen and react nonverbally. The amount of energy and intentionality they put into the play also won me over. Measured by effort and competence of performance, this production is praiseworthy indeed.
Live theater can be a cruel mistress, however. A play often speaks more loudly through a variety of nonverbal ways than it does through the words of the playwright — nuances and subtleties of volume, tone and pacing. Here is where “Candy and Dorothy” falls short.
Part of the problem is inherent in the script. The first half of the play does not give the actors much variety to work with. Candy is preening and petulant, Dorothy is angry and righteously indignant, and Tamara is frustrated and frenetic. They all go on much too long at the same level before there is a change of pace.
Rather than play into the way the script is written (which pretty much calls for exactly what the performers did), the choice is to play off or against it, to find some different approaches for repetitious material. For instance, there is more than one way (loud and angry) to play righteous indignation. I felt that the director and cast never explored such possibilities. They were so busy pursuing what they see as the heart of the play, they neglected to look for nuance along the way.
I also felt that Jennifer Knight, as the offstage voice giving Candy and Dorothy their directions “from above,” made a questionable choice by putting an element of teasing and torment into the voice. It didn’t work for me. Nor did her portrayal of a psychiatrist in a brief scene with Tamara, which was overplayed and out of sync with the rest of the play.
On the other hand, Eric Humphries stood out in a supporting role. Down-to-earth and authentic, he found some shadings and changes of pace in his character that were refreshing. I connected with him far more easily than the other characters, at least until later in the play, when the tone of the play shifts nicely into a soft landing.
All in all, it was an interesting, enjoyable evening of theater. The play was a courageous choice for a theater debut. Neil Simon would have been much safer. The Strouds have something a little more ambitious and perhaps thought-provoking in mind with the Unexpected Stage Company. “Candy and Dorothy” is a good start, and I look forward to more good things.