by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Directed by Greg Leaming
Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training
FSU Center for the Performing Arts/Cook Theatre
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota
941-351-8000 or 800-361-8388
October 28 to November 15, 2009

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

FSU/Asolo Conservatory seems to be making a tradition of opening each of its production seasons with something suitable for a Halloween season. The Mystery Plays fills the bill but could also fit in any time that ghost stories aim to lure an audience. Rick Cannon's black-velvet-curtained set lit darkly along with swaths of light illuminating fluid scenes create an eerie atmosphere. Jonathan Shimon's stark sounds and Alysha Devries' costumes from which black is never absent enhance the air of mystery. Considering this, a Mr. Mystery orating a sort of philosophical, heeby-jeeby introduction, slices of exposition, and a conclusion hardly seems necessary. (Danny Jones, however, evokes a chilly Jack Elam in the part, adding to the mood.) I guess Mr. Mystery is supposed to justify the title by setting us to wonder if some mysterious power can dominate over choices we make in determining the course of our lives and deaths.

As I've noted before, so many contemporary American playwrights write, instead of plays, a series of related monologues or a narrative by one or more speakers broken up by illustrated scenes. They seem to be in a sort of Our Town syndrome without quite understanding the dramatic role of its narrator or realizing that Wilder's format was so original at its time....or how Tennessee Williams carried it so effectively forward. The narrator wasn't just a device or a way of avoiding traditional dramatic exposition or of tying up loose plot ends after dramatic action has ceased. Is it possible that dramatized narrative is what is actually being taught to student writers? In reading Aguirre-Sacasa's biog, I noted he got his MFA in playwriting from Yale Drama School. Subsequent research of other newer authors whose work I've found more narrative than dramatic produced the same pedigrees. (Yale alumna Sarah Ruehl seems to me to be an exception—but then, I'm familiar with only two of her plays.) Perhaps someone will turn up some old notes from George Baker's workshops and inject them into the curriculum. That way, we might get some real drama more often, especially when it appears that so many playwrights from the same source get produced. Of course, we could try getting graduates from a wide variety of playwriting programs, or do the winners of Kennedy Center honors from places like state universities, for example, lose their talent after they leave their schools from all over America?

But to get back to The Mystery Plays... The first of two, The Filmmaker's Mystery puts two strangers on a train (we get the reference): young filmmaker Joe Manning, there because he fears flying, and Nathan West (attractive Kenneth Stellingwerf). Joe (played dynamically by Dane Dandridge Clark, even when he has considerable narrating to do), attracted to Nathan, goes for some beers. Feeling compelled to step out for air at a stop, he's left by the train. All passengers are killed, but Joe doesn't just get away. Saved, he's yet beset by his family (played by Alicia Bullen and Lindsay Bytof, a bit young yet sincere), his brash agent (Angela Sauer, flamboyant), and a very inquisitive detective (Danny Jones, again mysterious). He's also pursued by the dead Nathan! They go where we don't necessarily expect, and we mostly enjoy following.

Ghost Children concerns why attorney Abby Gilley (intense Kim Hausler) hasn't answered her imprisoned brother Ben's letters for ten years. Convicted of killing their parents and a sister, he maintains he has changed and wants to be forgiven. Ben, in Ron Kagan's sensitive portrayal, invokes our sympathy. We learn that both as kids were horribly abused by both father and mother. It takes too long to get the siblings together, but Abby confronts Ben after a visit to a cemetery and their old house. There are reminiscences of youthful horrors, along with talk of ghosts who lived in a tree and thistles that hurt Abby's feet but that she got used to. Symbols, of course. The big enigma is why Ben killed the sister who did no one harm. The answer is weaker than we might wish. A plus for the presentation is casting of Kenneth Stellingwerf as Abby's driver. He's got charisma that the play certainly can use, even if its structure is more dramatic than the first one. Its dialog and conclusion aren't. We might as well be seeing a TV mystery.

Director Greg Leaming has cleverly blocked the suitably minimalist production. Stage Manager: Victoria Jones. Technical Director: Matthew Gist. Time: 1 hr., 25 mins. w/15 min. intermission.

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