By John Quinn
Theater is magic. Theater is illusion. Theater, if I appropriate the Bard’s imagery, is “such stuff as dreams are made on.” Where dreaming is strongest is in the “black box” theaters that abound in Metro Detroit. Some artists paint pictures on white canvas. Some artists “paint” pictures on black walls or curtains. It is intrinsically unreal, but give an audience a suggestion of time and space and we’ll readily suspend disbelief. And when we do, how satisfying are the dreams!
It is to be regretted that the Epicenter Theatre Group hasn’t used Oakland University’s black box, the Varner Hall Lab Theatre, to its full potential. Its latest offering, two one-act plays, is overproduced; so much so that it dampens the audience’s enthusiasm.
First on the bill is “The Man Who Lost His Sundays,” a world premiere written and directed by company member Marius Illiescu. In following the maxim “write what you know,” Illiescu brings us a part of his family’s history, as told to him by the people involved. While the program refers to “a large city in an oppressive regime,” it’s no feat to infer this is Bucharest, Romania, during a two-decade block of the Soviet hegemony. Our characters are Michael, a royalist arrested on the day of King Michael’s abdication in December 1947. The new Communist government sends him to a labor camp for a total of 16 years for his “misplaced” loyalty. Left behind are his faithful wife, Victoria, and their 11-year-old son, Nicholas. Deprived of his father’s presence at so early an age, Nicholas grows estranged from him. “The Man Who Lost His Sundays” is a compelling example of the triumph of character in the face of oppression.
While the material and characters are solid and compelling, the overall production is less so. In directing his own work, Illiescu lacks the objective second opinion that a separate director could bring to the script. Through four scenes the action steps BACK in time from 1967 to 1947, to no identifiable advantage. We’re just not used to “happy endings” at the beginning of a play. But given that convention, the production is ‘way too literal. This is best illustrated by the empty window frame down stage center that serves no useful purpose, since the presence of a window is indicated by lighting. In addition, the play is heavy on unnecessary, unreliable props that make for long scene changes. There is a masterful image in the third scene when a young Victoria is plucked from her yard and delivered to an interrogation center. If the whole conception were this abstract, the imagery would be much more forceful.
Batting second is comedian Steve Martin’s farce, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” It’s a shame that the pacing isn’t as nimble as the bunny in the title. Artistic Director Bill Premin both directs and acts in the play, thereby losing the chance to stand back and get the “big picture.” More of that later.
Martin’s plot posits a chance meeting between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein at a Montmartre bistro in 1904. Picasso is about to challenge art by introducing Cubism; Einstein will turn physics on its ear by proposing his universal field theory. The two celebrities, plus the guests and staff, ponder the mysteries of genius and originality while swilling large quantities of intoxicants. It is a Steve Martin-silly romp, at times pretentious, at times profound.
There is a problem. “Picasso” is a long play, and the two one-acts together run close to three hours. This is partially due to overly realistic sets that take a half-hour intermission to strike and remount. And that’s just not necessary. Guest artist David Shammas has painted two marvelous backdrops, an old East European street and a forced-perspective Eiffel Tower. Both are obscured by unnecessary additions. The Lapin Agile needs only ONE wall. That would be the one with the “big picture!” How much better would Christa Koerner’s eye-popping costumes look against a more serene canvas?
These are tough economic times, but especially for the arts. Now, more than ever, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s famous “less is more” means getting good results without breaking the budget. Just give us the hint; we’ll fill in the blanks!
‘The Man Who Lost His Sundays’ and ‘Picasso at the Lapin Agile’
Epicenter Theatre Group at Varner Hall Lab Theatre, Oakland University, Rochester. Thursday-Saturday through Nov. 5. $20. 586-246-7546. http://www.epicentertheatregroup.com