In college, I had a professor named Dr. Hanners, a man whose wispy blonde hair always seemed to be jutting out in odd clumps. Dr. Hanners was a font of useful advice, little of it theatrical, despite the fact that he taught directing. Story after story would flow from his mouth, each one interesting and most of them bizarre. One involved his wife, a butcher knife, and some snakes. There were some strange Kennedy conspiracy theories and alien abduction stories. But sometimes words of great theatrical wisdom would be buried in his hour-long rambles: Audiences love a good song and dance. Never block people in a straight line. Be wary of any script that is a joy to sit and read.
Director Cathy Hartenstein should have met the great Dr. Hanners. Timberlake Wertenbaker's The Love of the Nightingale reads like a dream. I'd been sucked in as well, read the script for a feature story and fell in love with the arrangement of words. Unfortunately, on the stage, what seemed like subtle nuances become big heavy skillets that whack you on the back of the head every time Wertenbaker makes some point about the plight of women. Which is unfortunate, because I think they are important points to make. Theatre, however, is one of the mediums most based on the "show, don't tell" principle, and this script does a whole lot of telling.
Which is not to say that Hartenstein doesn't try to show. Symbolic movement is introduced into the production and used to distinguish the different scenes and classes of people. The country women use rough movements to separate them from the city woman, Procne, who is brought back to their town as the king's prize. The audience knows that she has succumbed to the country life when she adopts their crude movements. It's an effective bit of blocking that illustrates a point without pointing directly at it with a big neon arrow that flashes repeatedly.
Also effective are some of the performances and designs. Amalia Stifter, as Philomene, the younger sister who is forced to endure the amorous attentions of her brother-in-law, plays every nuance in a brilliant performance. Amber Lea Voiles, as Procne, warms into the role as her character acclimates to her new life. Mark S. Reeb as the Captain and Gregory James Michniak as Tereus also lend some substance to their characters, proving that the male roles contain as much substance as the female. Megan Wilkerson's modular set flows fairly well and gives the impression of everything from a castle to a ship, while Andrea Lauer's costumes use color to illustrate the distinctions of status and class.
Still, it's hard to get past the problems of the script, despite all the clear thought that went into this UT Department of Theatre and Dance production. Dr. Hanners would have a field day critiquing the shortcomings of Wertenbaker's work, if we could wedge it into his musings about Francis Bacon and Shakespeare's wife. -- A.M.
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