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Early Risers 

Theater Review: Harmfulness of Tobacco and Swan Song, and Private Lives

The curtain has been raised a little early on Vermont's summer theater season; scarcely two weeks after the college students were shooed away, independent productions and stage stalwarts are already taking bows. Perhaps Green Mountain thespians have gotten their acts together and vowed to rival the fecundity of festivals. Whatever the reason, all the state's a stage from now until foliage steals the show.

Two gems in the Burlington area this month are Wayne Martens' double bill of Chekhov one-acts at the FlynnSpace -- Harmfulness of Tobacco and Swan Song -- and the St. Michael's Playhouse season opener, Noel Coward's Private Lives. These classic works could hardly be more different, yet the two playwrights share what might inelegantly be called the gift of gab.

In the case of Chekhov, it's an incessant monologue: Harmfulness of Tobacco is a solo performance, and Swan Song is nearly so -- a second actor shares the stage with Martens only for a short while and doesn't say much. A professional producer, director and Equity Actor originally from the Detroit area, Martens recently retired to Vermont and performed in a Stowe Theater Guild production of The Fantasticks. The Chekhov evening, which he is staging as a benefit for Burlington's Catalyst Theater Company, marks his first dramatic appearance in the Queen City.

One hopes it will not be his last; the man takes to the stage like an otter to water, and just as energetically. In publicity materials, Martens explains that he first performed both these short plays more than 40 years ago. Now 68, Martens is the same age as both his characters. It adds to the realism that he doesn't have to wear a wig, put on aging makeup and pretend to be over the hill. With thinning hair, bristly eyebrows and a mostly white beard, Martens certainly looks the part -- but his range of emotion goes well beyond Grumpy Old Man.

His two characters are opposites in one sense: in Harmfulness of Tobacco he plays a henpecked instructor in his wife's music school, seething with barely contained resentment that he's wasted his life married to a shrew; in Swan Song, he's a once-great stage actor nearing the end of his career and lamenting that he never had a wife and family. Each in his own way, the men are losers -- lonely, distraught and unfulfilled. It is to Chekhov's, and Martens', credit that they can also be funny at times, and that they win our sympathy even at their most pathetic.

The conceit of Harmfulness is that the unnamed character is delivering a lecture about the evils of smoking -- at his wife's insistence -- to us, the unidentified audience. But, like a defiant child, he sneaks off-topic as soon as he thinks the battle-axe has left the building, letting us know that he himself smokes... "and that is probably the reason my wife suggested that I speak today on the dangers of tobacco, and so there's really nothing more to be said. Is there?"

In fact the addled lecturer, dressed formally in cravat and coattails, wanders so often that the entire "lecture" is a tangle of tangents that go nowhere -- except to the heart of his torment. This is not about tobacco at all, we soon realize; it is about the man's contempt for his dominating wife and seven daughters, and for himself at being a used and beaten man. Alone on a prop-free stage, Martens allows this anger to erupt in futile sputters and nervous tics, while sharing funny-on-the-surface anecdotes from his sorry life. It's a thoroughly engaging performance.

The same can be said for his raging actor, Vassily, in Swan Song. Chekhov penned both these tragi-comedies long before the word bipolar came into vogue, but the roles demand a full spectrum of emotional expression, which sometimes switches from manic glee to utter despair in a single line. The broad "vocabulary" of Martens' face, body and voice is up to the challenge; he comes unglued before our very eyes, pulls himself together, crashes again.

Swan Song is a darker play than Harmfulness, both emotionally and literally. Vassily is abandoned in an empty theater, drunk and passed out, after everyone has gone home following a cast party. He's alone except for the prompter, Nikita, who's eventually wakened from his slumber in the dressing room by Vassily's thunderous soliloquy on the stage. Here the "set" consists only of a couple chairs, and the lighting is appropriately dim.

Played with nearly wordless eloquence by Michael Boland, Nikita listens, bleary-eyed, as the old actor recounts scenes from his life, his plays, his affairs and his final, desperate emptiness -- the one woman he truly loved rejected his lifestyle. "What I hadn't realized was that a woman could be madly in love with an actor, but to marry one? Not on your life," Vassily tells Nikita morosely. "There were other women, many other women, but it didn't matter. It was never the same. I never loved again... I just frittered my life away."

Whether or not this conveys Chekhov's opinion of actors in general, Swan Song provides an extraordinary role for one, and Martens inhabits it fully. Yet ultimately the play is a rather severe cautionary tale about finding balance in one's life -- between labor and love, self and other, shallowness and depth.

Some would say Noel Coward was all about shallow, and there's truth in that. But in a good way; the British playwright, actor and songwriter penned dozens of plays about the vapid, self-indulgent upper crust, to the delight -- and sometimes shock -- of audiences on both sides of the pond. Though his best works were arguably written pre-World War II, frequent revivals over the decades since have proved the timeless appeal of stylish sophisticates, clever repartee and wicked humor.

The St. Michael's Playhouse production of Private Lives is a case in point. The 1930 comedy in three acts features two couples -- Elyot and Sibyl Chase, and Victor and Amanda Prynne -- who bump into each other on the eve of their respective honeymoons at a French seaside hotel. That is, Elyot and Amanda do, awkwardly, then angrily, and then ardently. The two used to be married to each other, but the heat of their quarrels finally trumped their passion, and they divorced.

Elyot, played with acerbic cool by Bradford Cover, has already castigated his young, shrill wife by the time he lays eyes on his ex and falls for her all over again. Sarah Carleton absolutely becomes Amanda, clearly having a ball with this flamboyant, free-spirited role. Amanda is by turns alluring, devil-may-care irresponsible, and rip-roaring mad. At all times, however, she and Elyot are devastatingly witty. The snappy patter in Private Lives comes on so fast, repeated viewings may be necessary to catch all the bon mots.

With unfettered selfishness, the two decide to zip off to Paris together, leaving their unfortunate new spouses to... whatever.

In Act II Elyot and Amanda loll about in her Parisian apartment, apparently having spent an amorous few days rekindling the old relationship. But theirs is a flame that flares quickly out of control, and the couple invents a word -- "Sollocks!" -- to signal a cease-fire whenever an insult or accusation slips out. But even witty dialogue has its limits, and in no time at all the fists begin to fly. Director Clark gets credit for staging a convincing fight -- not an easy task in live theater. Carleton and Cover literally throw themselves into mutual knock-down-drag-out domestic abuse, destroying a few of scenic designer John Paul Devlin's period props along the way.

By the time poor Sibyl and Victor inexplicably show up to vent their considerable outrage, the apartment is in a shambles and their errant spouses are bruised and barely speaking. They are also totally unrepentant, which further incenses the cuckolded partners. Coward's dialogue in Act III is particularly acidic, especially when Sibyl and Victor finally join in the word-play fray.

Marianna Bassham's Sybil is at first annoyingly petulant -- and her English accent not quite right -- but by the end the actress summons the inner strength of a woman wronged, and Sibyl holds her own in a lambasting squabble with Victor. James Michael Reilly hilariously captures both the principled English gentleman and the huffy, self-righteous prig in Victor. And though her walk-on scenes are as skimpy as her skirt -- and her few lines en français -- Haley Rice's French maid-with-attitude is delightfully insouciant and sexy.

The rich, of course, must be clad in fabulous clothes, and costume designer Jenny Fulton has obliged, particularly with the glamorous gowns and sparkly jewels worn by Carleton. And Carleton wears them with don't-hate-me-because-I'm-beautiful aplomb. Devlin's seaside terraces are serviceable -- and suitably "sunny" with the help of Karen Perlow's lighting -- but his cozy, vintage Paris apartment is tres magnifique. Must be a bummer to lose so many props every night, though.

What's not a bummer is the scintillating language -- why don't characters talk like this anymore? -- and the high quality of summer theater in Vermont, so far.

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About The Author

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston is the cofounder, coeditor and associate publisher of Seven Days.


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