The new Ark Theatre on Louisville Road, and by extension the Savannah Actors Theatre which first gave life to it, is a most welcome and overdue addition to the Savannah theatre scene.
With the recent demise of City Lights Theatre -- an event clearly foreshadowed long before the actual fact -- Savannah suddenly became a musical kind of town.
Out went the tight, dark dramas performed in intimate little spaces by a hardcore group of quirky, charismatic veterans who never needed no stinkin’ microphones -- nor sometimes actual lines.
In came the Broadway hits, sung to near-perfection by a talented, well-mannered crowd of hard-working teens with Mickey Mouse Club head mics hanging off one side of their angelic little faces.
Performed by an ad hoc, vaguely SCAD-oriented troupe called the Drama Bums and directed by Sheila Lynne, the current run of Marie and Bruce at the Ark is a slight return to those roguish local theatre days of yore -- albeit with a generally younger and more sober cast.
Call it City Lights Lite.
Wallace Shawn’s irascible and absurdist portrait of a marriage gone sadly and hilariously awry is difficult material for any actor, dependent as it is on rhythm, timing and concentration. Imagine David Mamet with a sense of humor and you’ll get the idea. Imagine Wallace Shawn’s inimitable Vizzini character from The Princess Bride, recast as an emotionally withdrawn, selfish young husband, and you’ll really get the idea.
Keri Szymanski, as Marie, is the clear focal point of the show, and her energy, humor and physical presence fill the intimate space. Channeling Megan Mullally, she uses a full range of vocal and physical techniques to portray Marie as a vain, self-absorbed woman with a wit that’s a good bit quicker than it is insightful.
Marie says she hates her husband Bruce -- a word she repeats often, including many other more fertile descriptions of him that involve words I cannot in good conscience print in this paper -- yet despite what seems to be her abundantly superior ambition and intellect, can’t seem to rid herself of him.
Bruce, for his part, is content to be little more than a piece of furniture in Marie’s life, always eager for good conversation and good sex -- just not with his wife.
And therein lies the rub. Ryan Brown’s disaffected, solipsist Bruce blends into his surroundings so effectively that Szymanski sometimes seems alone onstage. Playing Bruce as a slightly drugged sleepwalker -- literally, in the sense of often not having his eyes completely open -- Brown opts for a very literal reading of Bruce’s lines, rather than what I imagine was Shawn’s more menacing, sarcastic intent.
How has Brown’s decision affected Szymanski’s Marie? Would she be less kinetic, and possibly less funny, if she had more to play off of? If Brown had opted to explore the dark subtext of Bruce’s seemingly innocuous lines, might there be some simmering tension between the two characters rather than Marie’s one-sided open hostility?
Who knows? In the sense that the Chicago Bulls were usually better off letting Michael Jordan do his thing, perhaps it’s best that Lynne gives Szymanski the run of the stage and lets the chips fall where they may.
Other cast members include Stephen Cyr, Janson Lalich, Valerie Lavalle, Adam Scarborough Nelson and Sasha Travis, and they are all a collective delight in their various absurdist interludes, many of which had me in hysterics. I’d pay to see a spinoff featuring just their characters.
I can’t honestly say the Drama Bums pull off Marie and Bruce completely. There are moments that work -- and work quite well -- and there are others that clearly don’t.
Still, a foolish consistency is indeed the hobgoblin of little minds, and to my little mind what’s important here is that the Bums essayed this piece at all. I would surely never in my life have seen this little-known gem of a play had it not been for director Sheila Lynne’s decision to stage it.
And God knows the local scene badly needs what she, the Drama Bums and Savannah Actors Theatre have provided, which is the space -- both literal and mental -- for intense live drama in an intimate place capably used. ç
Marie and Bruce is performed Sept. 14, 15 and 16 at 8 p.m. at The Ark Theatre, 703 Louisville Rd., Suite D. $10 for adults and $5 for seniors and students. Call 224-6513.
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