Playing through July 19, 2010

PROVO — I walk into the Provo Theater space, my very favorite local theater, to see a life-size mummy sarcophagus! I have a feeling this is going to be great! But, while there certainly was greatness to be found in this production of short plays by Mahonri Stewart, overall it was a pretty bewildering theatrical experience.

I say “bewildering” because not only did there not seem to be much of a flow to this evening of plays, but there also wasn’t enough context within most of the individual pieces themselves to be as fully engaging as I would have liked them to be. Writing a short play can be a tricky undertaking. It’s a balancing act. As an audience, we have to have an intellectual foundation in order to emotionally connect with the characters. The playwright must present the world of the play—as well as the characters, situation, backstory, and so forth—in a very short amount of time (and without overloading the audience with exposition), all the while telling an engaging story with a strong and interesting character arc. It’s quite the feat, and the problem, by and large, with this set, is that we don’t get enough of the exposition stuff to emotionally engage with these characters—even though the actors are giving fantastic performances. Without a proper context, many things come off as confusing and melodramatic.

The first play of the evening, “Immortal Hearts,” was very uneven, with lots of nonsensical behavior, snap decisions, and wacky antics. That’s just the form; the content was equally off-putting, with a broad and rather bizarre gypsy caricature, a strange depiction of our decisions surrounding romantic love, and sarcasm portrayed as the eighth deadly sin. (If it is, I’m in trouble). It all seemed very juvenile compared to what I know of Mahonri’s other writing—clearly his strong suit is not wacky contemporary comedies. I was actually surprised that this was not the play that the program said Stewart had originally written in high school.  That being said, I think it was a fun experiment and I take my hat off to Stewart for going out of his comfort zone, even if it didn’t really work for me.

The next piece was a performance of a song written for a musical adaptation of Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens. The performance was engaging visually, and the background music lovely—which made me sad that we were only able catch snippets of Jamie Denison’s voice. The background track was so loud that we lost most of her vocal performance, and many of the lyrics as well. Additionally, the song lacked context. I think it’s a lot to ask of an audience to be familiar with one of Dickens’s less popular novels—and even if the piece was not going to be contextualized onstage, something in the program would have been helpful.

“White Mountain” is the play Stewart actually wrote in high school, and the clear highlight of the first act. It took us a little while to find our bearings in this piece as well, but that was only slightly distracting. We knew it was set in the 1800s because of the speech and costuming, which was helpful. The dialogue seemed natural and easy—it seems Stewart had a handle on the language of the 1800’s even in high school, which is nice to see. I loved the way dreams played a role in both the theme and the dramatic structure of the play. The verbal retelling of dreams was lovely, but best of all were the staged dreams. They are nicely written and beautifully and poignantly staged by director Brian Randall. I was invested in the characters enough that I would have liked to have seen more of their story, but this short play was self-contained enough to be satisfying on its own.

The second act began with “The Prince’s House,” which was a particularly bizarre piece. Like the song, it completely lacked context. I believe we were seeing an exorcism—an exorcism set to Shakespearean-like poetry. Jason Fulmer gave such a wonderfully committed, raw performance as the tormented prince, and I so wanted to emotionally connect with what he was going through up there, I just couldn’t get past the screaming need in my head to know what was going on.

Next was “Eurydice” the last play and shining achievement of the evening. This was a retelling of the myth of Orpheus, and his bride, Eurydice. This version is told from her point of view, and is set on the river Euphrates, as she travels to the underworld with Hades. Retellings that bring to light new ideas in ancient stories—with a slightly Mormon twist—are some of my favorite things in the world, and Stewart pulls this off beautifully! I used to think that Stewart was in his element with his historical plays, but I like this piece probably more then I’ve like anything else of his that I’ve read or seen. Not only was the writing solid and interesting, it was accompanied by standout performances by Rachel Baird (who also directed) and Adam Argyle. If you only make it for the last show of the set, your six dollars will be well spent.

Now, this production is a fundraiser. It’s a fundraiser for a brand spanking new theater company that I fully expect to mature into something worthwhile—and sooner rather than later. While this was not the best theater experience I’ve ever had, I did get to see some great performances, two very solid plays, and a guy worshipping a mummy! Well worth six dollars! So, in the spirit of fundraising—even if you miss this show or decide it’s not the set for you, you should still send Zion Theater Company a donation in the mail. Because I think you will be impressed with what this company is planning to do. So stay tuned for their season, and, even if you miss this, check out their full-length stuff—I think you will enjoy it.

Immortal Hearts and other short plays plays through Monday, July 19th as a fundraiser for future productions by Zion Theatre Company.  Performances take place at the Provo Theatre located at 105 East 100 North in Provo, UT. Tickets are $6 and may be purchased at the door.  For more information call 801-822-6506.