SALT LAKE CITY — As the audience took their seats in Rose Wagner’s dimly lit Black Box Theater, a single light fell on a large print of Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus, hanging on the back of the stage (lighting by Jaron Hermansen). The painting depicts the beautiful adult Venus emerging from the sea; her persona symbolizing the power of beauty to inspire both physical and intellectual love.
When the rest of the stage is lit, the half-dressed Tchaik bounds about the stage, obviously preparing himself for an event. He throws on items of clothing, combs his hair, and irons his shirt, never completing a single task nor performing them in any rational order. All the while, melodramatic music plays on the room’s record player, making the scene feel like something out of Loony Toons. Tchaik’s nickname is short for Tchaikovsky, which is also not his real name, but he explains that the name has stuck because of his avid love for classical music. On the previous night, Tchaik met a girl at the symphony and asked her to come for supper, ecstatic at the idea of sharing his deepest passion—music—with such a beautiful woman.
Before Tchaik can finish dressing, his affable friend Ted shows up to help prepare for his dinner guest. Tchaik ultimately winds up in an ill-fitting brown suit (costume design by Cherie James), his posture as limp as his stubborn hair. Ted’s easy confidence contrasts with Tchaik in almost every way: Ted’s posture, stylish apparel, and way of speaking grant everything he does an air of casual intention, whereas everything about Tchaik’s demeanor and behavior connote discomfort and self-consciousness. Ted commands a room by behaving as though it is his right to command it; Tchaik is easy to overlook because he doesn’t believe anyone would be interested in anything he has to say.
The two set about making final preparations for dinner. The stage is furnished as a simple studio apartment, with a small dining table in the center, a rug with a leather arm chair and record player on the right, and a shabby twin bed and night stand on the left. Doreen arrives, late, dressed in a neat skirt and blouse, topped off with a very chintzy faux-fur coat. With Ted busy preparing drinks in the kitchen, Tchaik is allowed time alone with the girl he fancies his very own Venus.
Director Javen Tanner employed several theatrical techniques to show the audience the contrasting emotions and experiences being had by the separate guests throughout the evening. Speechless action set to Tchaik’s classical records forced me to train my eyes on the actors’ expressions to understand their interactions, which had the odd effect of making their emotions feel simultaneously more vivid and more comic. During dinner, sometimes one or two characters would pause while the other(s) continued to enjoy their supper. This technique beautifully rendered the disparate experiences of each of the characters, even while sharing dinner at the exact same table.
I found Topher Rasmussen particularly convincing as Tchaik. He expressed a wide array of sometimes conflicting emotions, and even when his ideas seemed flawed, the conviction of his expression made the character feel authentic. As Doreen, Mitsi Kofford took some time to grow on me, but think some inscrutability might be inherent in the role. When Doreen first arrives at Tchaik’s apartment, she’s not entirely sure what sort of evening to expect, and I spent most of the play uncertain what kind of behavior to expect of Doreen. Gordon Dunn, in the role of Ted was half affable charm and half self-absorbed cad. Dunn played the role with great energy and charisma. But even though he was likable enough, the character sometimes felt less genuine and more like an actor going through the motions.
A word about accents: This play takes place in 1962 London. But the setting wasn’t particularly pivotal to the story, and using natural accents wouldn’t have hurt my ability to imagine setting. When done well, accents can help communicate the class, education and geography of characters, but in this play the accents fluctuated enough to be more of a distraction than a help. This is something I say a lot in my reviews, but I feel particularly validated this time as I was accompanied by a real-live English person whose first response, after being asked for thoughts about the play, was that it was hard to pay attention because “the accents were definitely English, but all over the country.”
Overall, I enjoyed the The Private Ear. Running only an hour, the story moved quickly and completely captured my attention from start to finish. In addition to the thought-provoking plot itself, the theatrical techniques employed were creative and visually interesting. Sir Peter Shaffer’s script uses complex characters in a commonplace situation to explore some fairly allegorical concepts, which is to say it demands a lot of a producing company. With very few exceptions, The Sting & Honey Company delivered exactly what the script required, and I have found myself thinking and talking about the play days later.