As part of their annual East to Edinburgh series, 59E59 Theaters have given a temporary home to several small acts before they head to Auld Reeky for August. There is always a wide assortment of plays and one-person shows of varying levels of completeness. This year is no exception. Here are two:
Tales of life and Death
There was an announcement made before Tales of Life and Death that a fifth short play had been added to bring the length to an hour and that, for that play, the actors would be reading from scripts. No problem there. What is a problem is when it’s impossible to tell which of the short plays that means as three of the five very clearly involved at least one performer reading their lines. Then it isn’t a case of not enough time to learn blocking and technical cues but not have lines down; it’s a case of lack of preparation.
Playwright Craig Lucas has some impressive credentials: Both a Pulitzer and Tony Award winner, his most famous work is Prelude to A Kiss, a play that went on to become a major motion picture with Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan. Tales of Life and Death has neither that piece’s charms, nor its philosophical conundrums. These stories might have been provocative a few decades ago, like when AIDS was fairly new and the AIDS quilt movement started. For a current play it felt stale, out of touch — at least when limited to the few minutes in which that particular story ran its course.
The performance comprises a series of only loosely linked vignettes performed by two actors, Richard Kline and Pamela Shaw. Kline’s style is loose, and he seems perfectly comfortable onstage. On the night of the performance, even when he was “on script” he was mostly off it, delivering his lines with a natural ease. Shaw, on the other hand, seemed to have difficulty not only with the new material but with the greater part of it. This was made particularly evident in a vignette in which she’s the only one who does any speaking, with Kline’s character offering only nods and shakes of his head in reply to her questions and the pre-recorded comments. There was a lot of stammering and reading off notes on the “bar.” Her delivery, when it came, was consistently rushed and nervous throughout. It might have been a chosen style of performance, but it looked like lack of preparation.
News clips fill the silence and dark between scenes, but these too feel stale and irrelevant, other than possibly to clue the audience in to the dates when these stories may take place. Though that’s just a guess to their purpose. It isn’t clear if that was a directorial decision or the playwright’s prerogative, but the sound balance was off on the evening and so much of what was said in the clips was lost or very difficult to hear.
It’s true that this is a preview show, and that the cast and crew are preparing for their time in the world’s largest cultural festival, but with time running short, there is a lot of work to do.
As part of their annual East to Edinburgh series, 59E59 Theaters have given a temporary home to several small acts before they head to Auld Reeky for August. There is always a wide assortment of plays and one-person shows of varying levels of completeness. This year is no exception.
Where Tales suffered from stiffness and forgotten lines, Cece Otto’s one-woman show Hyperthymesia offers a dynamic narrator and a fascinating story. The monologue piece is about a woman who is one of only a couple dozen or so people who have been diagnosed with a condition characterized by highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM). In these cases, a hyperthymesiac can recall even minute details about any day during their lives from the beginning of their memory on. While many people might think about how useful an ability like that could be, Otto’s show focuses on the other edge of the sword: Happiness is being able to forget the things that have hurt you. Breakups, deaths of loved ones, scares and disappointments — all feel as fresh as the day they happened. It’s no wonder someone in the position of possessing such an extraordinary memory would do anything they can to try to forget.
Much of the play runs parallel to the life of a woman named Jill Price, at least in terms of the techniques Price employed to try to calm her thoughts, like regular and extensive journaling. People with HSAM have talked about their memories crowding their heads in any calm, still moment. Otto describes it like a swarm of bees, and the amount of detail that she wrote into the play could be just as intimidating. In between descriptive and emotional recitals of life stories (and the dates on which they occurred), she performs various series of actions and gestures, borrowing from dance, that provide slow, smooth feeling to counterbalance her narrator’s sometimes frenzied words.
The stage design consists of a single chair, but Otto pantomimes whatever else might be needed, leaving the audience to form an idea from imagination. It’s a plain but touching performance about one person’s struggles with her own amazing mind. The script is thoughtful, and also asks the audience to question their own experiences with remembering and forgetting. There is empathy and kindness in the telling, making Otto a very endearing narrator. It’s a piece that demands a lot of her, both physically and mentally — which also explains the unusual running time of 40 minutes — but is very satisfying and ultimately very hopeful. Hyperthymesia is directed by Robert Scott Smith.
Top photo: Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh, Scotland