The Soldier Dreams: Misreading Clues Around a Deathbed

Hyde Park Theatre, through May 22
Running Time: 1 hr, 15 minphoto from The Soldier Dreams

"We shall die alone," observed the French philosopher Pascal, but he might have added, "surrounded by family and loved ones." Indeed, the dying do go on their own, and the sadness of it is that the ones who surround the dearly departing will never fully know who it is that they are losing. No matter the shared memories or private connections, confirmation cannot be obtained from those who drift off in the arms and tears of even their closest companions, leaving behind a myriad of unanswered questions -- clues without solutions.

In Subterranean Theatre Company's production of Daniel MacIvor's The Soldier Dreams, there lies David: dying right in front of us, hopelessly out of reach, surrounded by his family and loved ones. Tish and Judy, his sisters, Tish's husband Sam, and David's lover Richard hover about the dying man, trying to make sense of words that float from his mouth like talismans, replete with meaning, if only they could decipher them. As David drifts away from life, these lingering syllables take on such importance for the others as they try to maintain contact with this soul that they are bound to lose. All claim some ownership of the David they knew -- or thought they knew -- trying, and failing, to understand his mysterious words, groping blindly for connections they cannot make.

The audience, however, sees the connections and grows to understand the real meaning behind dying David's utterances of "matchbook," "Ottawa," and "German doctor," because in MacIvor's play the audience is granted access to a waking, walking, healthy (and rather cavalier, to put it politely) David. The playwright skillfully avoids outright mawkishness in favor of the inherent tragic overtones of misread clues and claims of unconfirmed memory, all the while peppering his script with the wit -- sometimes soft, sometimes rabidly funny -- that accompanies such a protracted, emotionally draining deathwatch.

Subterranean, under the direction of Ken Webster, always gives the audience a script-friendly production, bringing the text to life with a sharp reverence. The cast provides tight, deeply emotional performances that bear every resemblance to reality. As big sister Tish, Cyndi Williams turns in a gifted performance as the overtly brassy tower of strength who proves no more solid than her Jell-O desserts, which she foists on everyone. Monika Bustamante plays little sister Judy with an earnest earthiness -- she's the hippie pothead who seems most capable of dealing with her brother's death as something sad yet natural. David Jones once again simmers with unspent emotions as the dying man's lover; his one chance at openly grieving for his love upended by the ever-intrusive Sam, brilliantly portrayed by Robert Fisher, who exploits every detail of his character's well-intentioned oblivion.

As the ambulatory access-to-the-past version of David, Corey Gagne is certainly charismatic, though a little cartoonish. His wide grin, bright eyes, and deleterious conduct combine to form a picture of the real David, the one that the others don't know, the David who finds the thrill of following a German exchange student back to his digs irresistable, although this is what kills him. It is almost too shallow a character -- so giddy in his inability to decline the slow, sexual pressure of the German -- but then, perhaps the audience, like the hovering family, expects more from this rather revered lover/brother than there could possibly be: We, too, are guilty of misreading the clues, of anticipating someone better than the perfectly ordinary, susceptible man we get. As the German Student, Judson L. Jones is smiling and enigmatic, an otherworldy concoction of desire and dark power.

Finally, David dies, and there follows a sequence of dreamy images of the family dismantling the bed, mourning, and of David and the mysterious German Student connecting in another world -- where death is an affirmation of life. There is something detached about these images, and about the whole play, despite the sliced-life depth and quirkiness of its sometimes hilarious, sometimes pitiable, quotidian trappings. Perhaps Subterranean's attention to bringing the script so reverently to the stage creates this cold, death-like distance that obscures the potential warmth evident in the sure direction, nuanced acting, and honest, life-affirming story. --Robi Polgar

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF: TWILIGHT TIMEphoto from Fiddler on the Roof

Paramount Theatre, through May 16
Running Time: 2 hrs, 40 min

Sunset. A time of transition, when one part of our daily cycle gives way to another, when daylight gives way to darkness. It is easy to come away from Austin Musical Theatre's version of Fiddler on the Roof with sunset in mind because of the way it's suggested in John Ore's lights for the production. The sky above Anatevka -- that humble Russian village where the milkman Tevye and his family make their home -- is ablaze in elegiac golds and crimsons and violets, intense hues that vibrantly mark the passing of a day. It is a time that figures prominently in this Joseph Stein-Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical favorite: in both the Shabbat ritual observed by Tevye's family and their fellow Jews, and one of the show's signature tunes, "Sunrise, Sunset," that oft-sung ode to time's passage and the changes it brings.

And that is also what we come to witness as the story of Anatevka is played out in Fiddler on the Roof: a sunset for the life lived by the Jews of the village. As the Russian revolution sweeps in, the Jews are swept out, and the traditions so prized by Tevye and celebrated in the musical's rousing opening number are scattered to the winds, even as the villagers are. We see daylight fade for these villagers of Anatevka; we see darkness fall. And Ore drenches these scenes with the kinds of twilight shades so exquisite that our hearts ache to look at them -- and yet we pray for them to linger, that we might treasure that radiant pang for a little while longer.

In their realization of Fiddler, AMT directors Scott Thompson and Richard Byron tap this paradox of sunset -- profound heartache and surpassing beauty -- to craft a production rich in visual spectacle and poignance. In Christopher McCollum's patchwork set, with its receding proscenium frames connected by bits of board into a ramshackle whole, can be found not only an artful evocation of the hardscrabble life of these poor villagers but a sense of the villagers' connection as a community. When McCollum supplements this with a scrim on which is projected a collage of Jewish faces drawn from antique photographs, he offers us a haunting link to other families, other communities, other lands, in which these same traditions have persevered, even in the face of similar poverty and persecution. In the dramatic confrontations between Tevye and his elder daughters, each of whom finds a mate outside the boundaries of Anatevka's traditions, the tearing of the bond between parent and child is portrayed with painful clarity.

Naturally, not all of AMT's Fiddler is sorrow and hardship. The production is anchored most affably by Armen Dirtadian's Tevye, who holds the stage with an inextinguishable twinkle in his eye that radiates a smile even when the corners of his mouth are turned down. As Tevye's wife Golde, Lorraine Serabian counters Dirtadian's languid amiability with an aggressive vigor and a stout, sharp battering ram of a voice capable of blasting down the thickest doors of the czar's palace. And Lola Powers serves up the comic delights of the matchmaker Yente with old-school show-biz brio and timing you could set your watch by. Thompson and Byron also deliver a fancifully staged nightmare that elicits more giggles than goosebumps, while providing the lightning pace and personable cast that are already trademarks of AMT productions.

Still, this Fiddler strikes me as being about more than any one performance or sequence; it seems to live most fully in the sense of community that suffuses it. In all their shows to date, Thompson and Byron have managed to elicit an uncommon sense of ensemble from their casts, a unity of purpose and will that can be felt in the uppermost seats of the Paramount balcony. But here, that feeling of harmony seems even more tightly bound up in the story being told, in the intimately bonded lives of a village, a faith, a family. When the full company gathers onstage for the wedding of Teyve's daughter Tzeitel and the tailor Motel, the verve, the excitement, the bittersweetness, the joy, seem to come not from a throng of individuals but from one shared heart. And in that oneness, that connectedness, this AMT company shows us a light that shines beyond the sunset, a light to carry us through whatever darkness may come. --Robert Faires

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