Critique of the Week (On a Monday)

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Yes, we know, it’s been a while since we’ve published a COW. Hey, we’ve been busy! But we’re starting to find our rhythm again so expect the posts to come fast and furious.

This week’s COW comes from Jason the Rohrer. What I like about this critique is that Jason is clearly a fan of the company and the artists and you can feel and hear the struggle he is having as he pens what amounts to a pretty strong pan of the production. This isn’t about the show as much as it is about a critic struggling to maintain a balance between his loyalty towards his medium and his own affections.

THE WOODSMAN

Jason Rohrer – Stage and Cinema

LUMBER

Workshopped once onstage in 2000, Stephen Fechter’s The Woodsman had its play form set aside while Fechter and director Nicole Kassell turned it into a screenplay that won the 2001 Slamdance screenwriting competition. The 2004 film was about as good as most movies starring Kevin Bacon, whose luck cruelly runs out every time he gets a lead. Earnest and issue-driven enough to compete at Sundance and get a limited release, the movie exemplifies a hallmark of low-budget independent filmmaking that might be described as a deliberately uninteresting competence. The sober portrait of Walter, a basically decent but unregenerate child molester released after twelve years in prison, it features familiar elements from various indie genres: static shots of troubled characters looking into the distance; an implied but unrealized sense of dread; a sexually aggressive woman who insists on becoming involved with a reluctant loner; a late-developing thriller element hinging on a dramatically convenient twist; a redemptive climax that doesn’t quite achieve poignancy.

In 2009 Fechter went back and published the play version, a sometimes-lyrical rudiment still at odds with its disparate and underwritten parts. The play has a little ingenuity in its theatrical gestures – theme-heavy dream sequences and psychological manifestations more or less pay off – but in a facile double-jeopardy of narrative convention, the protagonist narrates his inner life to both a therapist and a diary. The play is almost as shallow in its linear elements. Walter’s one remaining friend delivers perfunctory exposition of the former life now denied him; Walter’s girlfriend tries to make him see the good in himself by immediately moving in with him, perhaps because she sees a reflection of her own complicated past (an interesting character revelation absent from the streamlined blandness of the film); a vindictive cop hangs around, threatening to turn into a real dramatic obstacle.

The soupy question of whether Walter’s therapy with a comic-relief shrink will work, or whether he’ll molest again – and whether an unlikely offstage character, a one-for-one foil for Walter, will molest again, too – awkwardly renders up a potboiler that finally dominates the story after over an hour. This labor delivers a scene between Walter and a girl he stalks that, while the best-written and most captivating in the script, is ultimately unearned, a deus ex machina via timely epiphany.

There’s nothing wrong with a happy ending as long as God’s machinery doesn’t clank, and I imagine that with its pile-up of tropes this play would work best, and maybe work fairly well, in an entirely stylized and dream-like presentation that de-emphasized the realism. I have to say the intentions of Jeremy Lelliott’s new production escape my grasp. Perhaps in an effort to drive past the play’s conventions into a sort of essential truth, Lelliott has directed this show into a clipped, breakneck slice of life, while not delineating much stylistically between fantasy and reality. This does not confuse as much as confound the story, flattening the mundane and the spiritual alike. The mostly double-cast ensemble seems to me to rush and trample most moments, exposing rather than filling in the patchy writing.

The cast I saw included Tim Cummings, Joey Nicole Thomas, and Katie Pelensky, each of whom has elsewhere convinced and transported me with the highest order of stagecraft. Here they often look irresolute and unfulfilled. The actors are deeply invested, creating specific physical and intellectual characters, but I cannot see how their work and that of their director extends to creating a sustained, appreciable environment around them. And so the moments baffle, assumed but not agreed upon; there’s little apparent life between these excellent practitioners, and less between them and me. It’s not for a lack of trying. You can see the work up there. The remarkable Coeurage Theatre Company feels as if it needs to take a deep breath and relax into this one; but it’s a dull artistic director who doesn’t go all the way with a choice, and Lelliott has certainly gone somewhere. I wish that I could go with him this time, as I happily have before.