The late Dylan Thomas has two poetic masterpieces in the current repertoire of English-language theatre; "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and his final opus, the erotically charged "Under Milk Wood". The former is a perennial across the country during the holiday season, but the latter, with its cast of over fifty named voices, is more difficult, and most often done concert-style, relying on vocal characterizations and sound effects to bring this radio drama of love and death to life. Adding costumes requiring numerous changes, props and even elemental scenery can be hazardous.
For its first production, director Mitchell Sellers' Ablaze Theatre Initiative, which proposes to emphasize ensemble takes the risk. Rafael Jean, head of Costumes at Emerson College, has created layered outfits for nine actors, emphasizing lingerie for the women, and tattered rural variety on the men, with numerous hats, shawls, scarves, and bags to help distinguish among the denizens of Llaregub, an archetypal Welsh fishing village sheltering under ancient Milk Wood on a hill above. Artist Jill MacFarlane adds a variety of floor treatments; cobbles, bricks, rug, and grass to a collection of simple seating to provide numerous locations. The show is played in the round, with the actors seated in various positions adjacent to, and sometimes in, the audience when not performing. The cast moves all through the space, playing scenes and adding sound from every part of the large room which is the Tremont Theatre, a former restaurant on the ground floor of a large parking structure next to the Wang Center for the Performing Arts.
The forward action of this radio drama, which recounts one spring day in this mythical hamlet depends primarily on three actors. Two are narrators; Jeff Gill and Elizabeth Wightman, both seasoned regional theatre professionals, who also take their share of major characters in the piece. The third is Robert Astyk, a local performer playing Capt. Cat, the blind retired sea captain who hears the town from his open window. Astyk seems born to play this role. His quiet reminiscenses hold the earlier part of the evening together. He also makes a fine Utah Watkins, the farmer who hates his devoted livestock as wellas the police constable who checks every morning to make sure the sea is still there. Gill, who opens the evening with a bravura monologue exploring the sleeping town also shines as the Reverend Jenkins, the poet writing the town chronicle, while Wightman has a telling scene as the shade of Rosie Probert, Captain Cat's long-dead lover, plus a few good moments as Mrs. Organ Morgan, shopkeeper and gossip.
The six younger members of the ensemble play a kaleidescope of characters. Lindsay Joy is compelling as Polly Garter, the town's foremost unwed mother, who croons as she like the captain yearns for a deceased love. Joy is also touching as Bessie Bighead, the dim-witted milkmaid, and acid as Mrs. Pugh whose schoolmaster husband's favorite book is "Lives of the Great Poisoners". David Gross plays her henpecked husband, as well as Mr. Waldo, the town drunk, and several other put-upon spouses.
A more developed comic couple is Mog Edwards, the tight-fisted draper, played by Jayk Gallagher and Myfawnwy Price, the sweet shop keeper played by Jessica Burke, whose love affair is conducted solely by post. Their daily letters are carried by one of Michael O'Connor's eccentric characters, Willy Nilly Postman, who steams open all the mail and tells everyone what's in their letters before they get them. O'Connor plays Sinbad Sailors as well, the publican, who worships Jenny Gutbezahl's prissy schoolmarm, Gossamer Beynon, from afar, behind his bar. Gutbezahl also plays 89 year old Mary Ann Sailors, Sinbad's mother, and Lily Small's, the Beynon's domestic. In addition O'Connor creates the town's most bizarre character, "Lord Cut-Glass", an aged cripple who lives at the end of the worse lane in a shack full of clocks, all set at different times, a living symbol of the passing hours. Gutsbezahl switches type to become Mrs. Dai Bread Two, the bigamous baker's second wife, a gypsy fortune teller.
Gallagher and Burke too have additional memorable characters to their credit. Ms. Burke is almost frightening as Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard, the cleanliness obsessed keeper of the town's only guest-house, haunted by the ghosts of her two husbands. Gallagher plays one of these, but is also effective as music-obsessed Organ Morgan, the town's musician. Burke is charming as wanton Mae Rose Cotttage, the goatherd, "17 and never been kissed, ho, ho." Every member of the ensemble manages changes into these characters more than once, with the help of minor costume additions or subtractions. Director Sellers has obviously planned the show down to the smallest detail, for the ensemble not only chimes in as additional background characters, but also provides vocal and live sound effects as well.
Lighting and recorded sound add to the mix, enough so that in a less limited space--the ceiling at Tremont is too low for truly controlled lighting--some effects would be breathtaking rather than merely affective. Brian Ratliff's lighting does the job, and Haddon Kimes's recorded sound is there when needed. As the first downtown show in an alternative space, this effort by a newly formed theatre bodes well for the upcoming season. It was a pleasure to see an attempt to present a modern classic in all its richness rather than reinterpretated to make some contemporary point. Ablaze has already planned Boston premieres of two new works which should be anticipated.
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