SALT LAKE CITY — Light carpet topped with a red runner and lined with chairs on two sides designated a portion of the Central Utah Art Center basement as the stage. Orange extension cords wrapped around the building’s exposed pipes, routing the bare pendant light bulbs to the board at the temporary tech table. Aware of the venue’s weaknesses, writer/director Whit Hertford passed out blankets to potentially chilled audience members. As I waited for this Riot Act production, Poor Bastard, to begin, I reflected on why I love the bare bones storytelling style of blackbox theatre wherein the emotional depth is often inversely proportional to the show’s trappings. There is something about an empty stage that foreshadows the weight of the story about to unfold.
Adapted from Anton Chekhov‘s Ivanov, Poor Bastard simultaneously tackles a range of issues including depression, religion, infidelity, and death. Over the course of only a few years, Ivan Nicholas (played by Joel Stanley Huff) seems to have everything thrown at him at once as he falls into the downward spiral of the stereotypical midlife crisis. While Ivan seeks solace in the arms of his mistress Sasha (played by Brighton Hertford), his wife Anna (played by Olivia Custodio) is dying from the stress of living with his depression. To make matters worse, Anna feels ostracized from her family, having denounced her faith when she married Ivan.
As reality often presents a serious of problems that seem to tumble one of the other, it would be completely possibly for one character to experience so much negativity all at once. However, in the course of an 80-minute play, the scope of the task left each crisis feeling thematically shallow. One example was the apparent symbolism in Anna’s death as the cast draped her in a sheet, then covered her body with a table under which lay on stage for the remainder of the play. I waited anxiously for a poignant moment that would bring the symbolism to a climatic height; however, no such moment ever came.
Hertford’s approach to the dialogue captured the rhythm of real pain perfectly, escalating emotionally until a character could bear no more of the raging anger or fierce sorrow, then jumping jarringly to an awkward joke or complete change of subject. I could draw specific parallels in the language of Ivan’s self-depreciation or Anna’s disgust to real moments I have witnessed with friends or family. Similarly, the quirky character Kina, a caterer played by Haeleigh Royall, lent a much needed balance to the generally grave tone. Royall’s complete commitment to Kina’s offbeat timing and unexpected statements translated into a genuinely likable character. Although she added little to the plot, I often found myself wanting a little more Kina in the scenes. In contrast to so many moments grounded in truth, Sasha’s character felt contrived with agenda-laden dialogue. Hertford lent a sincere passion to Sasha’s anger, but I was never able to see her as more than a character written for a specific purpose.
Hertford’s direction required significant physicality from the actors. From Sasha leaping energetically onto Ivan for an airborne embrace to Paul (played by Roger Dunbar) wrestling his friend Ivan like a hog, the cast members engaged fully in these noticeably physical scenes. Other characters used subtlety to convey emotion. My favorite example was Anna’s facial expressions. Custudio had an impressive talent for silently expressing far more with her face than some people can with an entire paragraph.
While I generally wished for one thematic element to set itself clearly apart, I found myself frequently entranced by the brief passing moments of wisdom. The idea that “comedy is tragedy sped up” carried an abstract relevance while Sasha’s line, “Forget me… and then find me,” was poetically beautiful. It was one of Ivan’s lines, however, that summarized both the plot and the experience, “I missed a step.” Despite all of its successful moments, Poor Bastard ended up running parallel to the wonderful life Ivan could have had. Somewhere along the way, they each missed a step.