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Theater Review: The Children's Hour, Accidental Death of an Anarchist

Published May 21, 2003 at 4:00 a.m.

Actors and liars -- some would say there's no difference. Certainly the lines are blurred in two plays being staged this month by area theater companies: Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, as interpreted by Montpelier's Lost Nation Theater, and Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist, which Firefly Productions is bringing to FlynnSpace next week. Both revolve around characters so skilled at playing roles that they wind up undermining the lives of everyone around them. You might also say that the actors in both productions threaten to undermine the plays, but we'll get to that.

The Children's Hour opens with an intentional example of bad acting: Mrs. Lily Mortar, a faded diva, is instructing her elocution students in the delivery of Portia's speech (from The Merchant of Venice) about the quality of mercy. In Veronica Lopez's comically florid rendition, Mrs. Mortar's line readings are hopelessly cheesy, involving much waving about of scarves. As the play progresses, we discover that Mortar is clueless about mercy, too.

Note that Hellman (1905-1984) begins The Children's Hour with thespians, not lesbians. Though the 1934 play and its subsequent film adaptations are primarily known for their sensitive treatment of the love that dared not speak its name, the L-word is in fact never mentioned. As the playwright herself famously said, "It's not about lesbians. It's about the power of a lie."

The characters are victimized by lies or caught up in telling them. And the worst -- or best -- of them all is Mary Tilford, a vindictive teenager with a skill for taking advantage of others' weaknesses.

Mary lords it over her classmates at the Wright-Dobie School for Girls by threatening to reveal their various indiscretions. She dupes gullible adults like her teacher, Mrs. Mortar, and her wealthy grandmother, Amelia, with flattery and vows of affection. But the two adults she can't fool are the school's co-owners, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, who discipline her for her lies. So, when she hears from a classmate that Mrs. Mortar thinks Martha has "unnatural" feelings for Karen, Mary seizes the opportunity for revenge. Borrowing details from a naughty French novel she's been reading on the sly, she inflates Mortar's remark into false accounts of clandestine lesbian passion seen, she claims, through a keyhole.

Mary is a button-pusher. She knows, perhaps without even realizing it, that there's truth to what Lily Mortar suspects. She also knows that such a rumor, when spread to parents and grandparents, will spark a firestorm. In her canny use of innuendo she's a theatrical cousin to the vengeful Abigail in Arthur Miller's 1953 play The Crucible, who knows her cries of "Witch!" will stir up the townspeople's elemental fears -- which then take on a hysterical life of their own.

Miller's play was a direct response to the anti-Communist witch hunts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. The Children's Hour became a comment on that era, too -- it was revived on Broadway in 1952, the same year Hellman refused to name names before McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee.

Taking his cue from that revival, Lost Nation guest director Ian Tresselt has set his production of The Children's Hour in 1952. Not that you'd know it without reading the playbill. Yes, costume designer Milisa Brinton's suitably dowdy shirtwaists and cardigans suggest the fashions of the day. But John Paul Devlin's spare, almost abstract set works not because it evokes post-war architectural minimalism, as Tresselt suggests in his director's notes, but because it doesn't evoke a particular period. It's a tabula rasa, an almost-blank landscape that heightens the severity, and the universality, of the protagonists' plight.

It's the perfect framework for Tresselt's most inspired conceit: his decision to make the schoolgirls a kind of ever-present Greek chorus, eavesdropping from an upper platform, sitting in a row on the playing space like a silent audience -- even, in one mini coup de theâtre, disappearing into the walls. The girls' presence, along with Fred Wilber's insidiously effective sound design -- whispers, clocks and the frenzied repetitions of Philip Glass' score for the 1999 film Dracula -- makes concrete the dilemma of Karen and Martha.

The walls really do have ears here; there's no escaping the whispers and the witnesses. Tresselt also suggests the fervid rumors running rampant among the schoolgirls by having them read aloud, in intervals between scenes, purple passages from the racy Sapphic novel Mary used for inspiration.

Some of the best acting work in the play is done by the schoolgirl contingent: Nicole Morse, Caitlin Miller, Emily Lahteine and, most impressively, Lizzy Reynolds as Rosalie, Mary's favorite target and eventual betrayer. The girls have a spontaneous energy and authentic connection with one another and with the action of the play, which suggests the director worked hard to help them create a sense of ensemble. (Or maybe it's because they already were an ensemble; along with Dayna Cousins, who is over-the-top histrionic as Mary, and Tyler Ferland, who has a suitably creepy turn as a grocery boy, all are members of Lost Nation's Conservatory program for young performers.)

If only Tresselt could have established that same sense of ensemble throughout the production. The actors are well cast: Lost Nation's co-artistic director Kathleen Keenan has an easy maternal warmth that works for Karen; Janice Perry's no-nonsense mien is appropriate for Martha. Michael Manion is gently wry as Karen's fiance Joe; Lois Cooley manages to be both kindly and self-righteous as Amelia Tilford without overplaying either; and Lopez brings a nice, light touch to Aunt Lily, moving easily from daffy grande dame to selfish prig.

That said, there seemed to be something missing on opening night, particularly in the first act. Hellman's dialogue is tricky. Though hardly as elliptical as, say, Pinter, these characters' words are often at odds with the truths that lie beneath the surface. So actors must have a through-line -- an ongoing sense of the underlying emotions pulling the characters away from and toward one another -- or all we get is surface. Too often I felt actors were talking at rather than to each other, engros-sed in working up to their next moment rather than listening to what was being said to them. Vocal energy seemed low, delicate transitions were rushed -- and outbursts, rather than seeming to come organically from a character's inner turmoil, seemed to come, suddenly, from nowhere.

Accordingly, the most gripping scenes in this production are those in which the characters do lay all their cards on the table. When the two teachers and Joe force Amelia to explain why she's spreading the lesbianism rumor, or when they finally tell off Lily once and for all, the confrontations are raw and immediate. The anger of Perry's Martha rings deep and strong, especially when she asks Amelia the question that gets to the heart of the injustice being done: "It's our lives you're fooling with. Our lives. That's serious business for us. Can you understand that?"

It's a big question, because as Hellman no doubt wants to imply, the problem is that an upper-class matron like Mrs. Tilford can't understand the damage she's inflicting on these two working women's lives.

Despite the shortcomings in this production, Hellman's play still packs a wallop. Its relevance hasn't faded. Mary's cruelties recall those recent video images of teenage girls brutalizing each other. Groupthink button-pushers still stir up paranoia about gays teaching children. Martha's self-hatred may seem out of date -- we've come a long way since 1934 -- but her pain still registers.

Lillian Hellman based The Children's Hour on a true story, a case of two accused schoolteachers in 19th-century Edinburgh. Italian playwright Dario Fo, born in 1926, drew from history, too, in writing his 1970 play Accidental Death of an Anarchist. But his source was the recent past: the notorious 1969 case of a political activist who fell to his death from the window of Milan's police headquarters while under interrogation in connection with a bank bombing.

Fo, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997, is both a master entertainer and a savage satirist. According to his official Nobel biography, he learned the narrative arts from his grandfather, a traveling produce salesman who entertained his customers with politically charged tall tales, and from tavern habitues in the towns where his father worked as a railway station manager. That heritage shows in his plays; subversively appropriating the traditional techniques of Italian farce, they make the audience laugh while at the same time exposing the dangerous absurdities of fascist doublespeak.

I suspect Fo would have been charmed by the bucolic milieu of Firefly Productions' first performance of Anarchist on May 16: Waterville's picturesque if somewhat rickety Town Hall, where the production (sponsored by Cambridge Arts Council) attracted an audience of 30 or so moms, dads and little kids, with a few theater aficionados and artsy types mixed in. Shades of Fo's storytelling grandpa, riding into town and entertaining the locals.

To its credit, Firefly held the attention of this motley crowd for at least the first half of the show. Chief among the production's strengths is the performance of Jordan Gullikson as The Fool. The lunatic who's actually wiser than everyone else is of course a venerable comic type. Fo makes his fool a confessed histromaniac -- a.k.a. actor -- and places him in a setting that would have been immediately familiar to Italian audiences in 1970: a police department in the days following the accidental defenestration of an "anarchist."

The Fool can't stop himself from assuming false identities -- psychiatrist, police officer, judge, bishop -- and his impersonations wind up throwing into question not only the veracity of the entire justice system, but the culture that supports it.

For much of the play, Gullikson is cham-eleon enough to meet the role's challenges, at various times recalling Jon Lovitz as compulsive liar and action-movie bulldog Tom Sizemore. When at one point he's practicing how to act like a judge, it's a delightful display of an actor at work, spontaneously shifting voices and testing walks. He's so facile he gets ahead of himself sometimes, rushing through speeches and stumbling on the words (a problem common to all of the actors in the cast). But anyone who can imitate subway doors, a death rattle and an exploding suppository in rapid succession deserves applause.

The other cast members play the farce to the hilt, keeping the energy level high and usually, though not always, resisting the temptation to mug. Keefe Healy plays the dual role of a dim-witted sergeant and a captain who's alternately obsequious and officious; Joe Grabon is the hotheaded police chief, and Ken St. Louis a gruff inspector. Johanna Macri's an attentive officer, Dara Lyons a suspicious newspaper reporter. Some slapstick works surprisingly well on the cramped proscenium stage, including a moment when three (or is it four?) cast members are struggling not to plummet out the same window that claimed the anarchist.

Unfortunately, most of what I've just said about this production applies to the first act. I don't know what went wrong, but following intermission the performance went inexorably and disappointingly downhill. There were moments when it seemed as if this were the first time the actors had ever rehearsed their lines without scripts. In contrast to the brisk pacing and well-executed stage business of the first half, there were long gaps where these able actors simply looked bewildered. Line drops, prop accidents... I think it's safe to say that everyone involved knows this act needs work, and it seems certain they'll have improved it by the time the troupe reaches FlynnSpace. (In the interim there's also a performance scheduled for the Fletcher Union Meeting House on May 24).

It would be a shame if Firefly director Suzanne Mackay couldn't bring the entire play up to speed, because those final scenes contain some of Fo's most pointed observations about how governments toy with the truth and foster the dumbing-down of the electorate. "If people become politically conscious, we're screwed," says The Fool in one of his sardonic authoritarian guises. But Fo wants us to wake up; in one particularly bracing moment -- and this did come off well in Waterville -- he even implicates the audience, claiming it's full of informers.

If we come away from Accidental Death of an Anarchist thinking, Oh, well, that was a nice frenetic bit of farce, too bad about the lines, Firefly misses the chance to make us really think about the systems that control us. And Fo wouldn't be too charmed by that.

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