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An intriguing experiment at Planet Ant

By |2009-03-05T09:00:00-05:00March 5th, 2009|Entertainment|

If asked to identify one specific type of play I prefer to review, the answer will always be a show I’ve never seen before. Then, if pressed to be even MORE specific, I’ll explain that I love to experience new or recent works written by young or emerging voices who have a heretofore unaddressed story to tell, or a unique perspective on the world around them. And if the written word is given life by talented, up-and-coming local artists, then I’ve hit the jackpot – which is exactly what happened at the opening night performance of “Red Light Winter” by Adam Rapp at Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Theatre.
Rapp, the 40-year-old brother of “Rent” actor Anthony Rapp, is a novelist, filmmaker and musician whose first play, “Nocturne,” burst on the scene in 2001 and quickly established him as a writer of intense, character-driven plays. His men are often testosterone-fueled, yet socially and romantically awkward – an autobiographical aspect of his work, the author noted in various interviews – and he finds humor in even the darkest of situations. And his bullet-like, yet almost-lyrical dialog sprays the audience with equal rounds of profanities and poetry.
“Red Light Winter,” his 10th play and a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, is no different.
In act one, we find a sleep-deprived and obviously distraught Matt attempting suicide while on a trip to Amsterdam with his best friend, Davis. Abandoned three years earlier by his live-in girlfriend and recovering from a long-running gastrointestinal illness, Matt – a struggling playwright – is at the end of his rope. Or belt, actually, when in barge Davis and Christina – a French songwriter-slash-hooker who Davis believes will help lift his buddy’s severe melancholy.
One year (and one act) later, a knock at the door of Matt’s claustrophobic New York apartment brings the still-struggling playwright face to face with the woman who changed his life – and she doesn’t recognize him. (She thought the address belonged to Davis.) But surprises are in store when the reason for her visit is revealed – and three true natures bubble to the surface.
To critique Rapp’s script on its own merits would, in my mind, be a disservice to Planet Ant’s well-executed, but not totally satisfying production. That’s because both the show’s many fine merits and its few significant flaws are entwined so tightly, that to attempt to do so is not only unfair, but almost impossible to execute. As the script leads, the production closely follows.
That’s actually a compliment of the highest order, since it’s not often that a script and a team of thespians merge so thoroughly and so deeply that the result becomes its own living, breathing, albeit imperfect entity. And that’s what this fine production of “Red Light Winter” has become.
Like its author, the director of “Red Light Winter” is a rising star. But what surprised many was this: that the artistic director of a theater festival aimed at improving the opportunities for women artists would stage a testosterone-filled play with a misogynistic underpinning. Yet Shannon Ferrante accepted the challenge, and added an intriguing wrinkle to the mix as well. (More on that later.) The result was a slick, perfectly paced and riveting opening night performance – at least through the first act.
Why? Because Rapp’s characters in act one were fleshed out by the author and thespians alike in great detail, and they were thoroughly recognizable and believable – even if you didn’t necessarily like some of them, or experience a similar situation. Even the author’s sometimes-smart, other-times-tough dialogue was delivered with an ease and a naturalness that sealed the illusion that we, the audience, were silent observers of a real-life conversation. (The fact that the audience is seated only a few feet away from the action also helped.)
However, playwright Rapp shortchanged Ferrante and her actors with a not-as-tightly constructed second act that fails to complete the story to full satisfaction. As a result, the performances were sometimes as sketchy as the script upon which they were built.
In particular, Christina – or Christine as she prefers to be called in America – is severely underwritten, oftentimes with little do to except react to Matt’s long monologues. (Some of her motives, for example, are left primarily to the imagination.) And Rapp throws us a curve regarding her identity that, because it’s left mostly unexplored, serves as nothing more than an unnecessary distraction. (Plus, her perceived off-stage departure is likewise left unrevealed – which, to avoid giving any plot elements away, I won’t explain any further.)
Likewise, Davis’ brief interaction with Christine takes a shocking and twisted turn that doesn’t necessarily follow from what the playwright established previously.
That means that the audience is left in the dark with many questions unanswered, and an ending that’s really not. However, maybe that’s what Rapp wanted to say: that real life isn’t tidied-up over the course of a few hours. But without evidence to prove or deny it, we’ll never know for sure.
Still, Ferrante and her actors embraced what Rapp gave them in the second-act and delivered it with gusto and passion. (I just didn’t find some of the moments believable.)
YOUR experience may significantly differ from mine, however – and for good reason.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the production was Ferrante’s decision to go along with actor Kevin Young’s suggestion to allow the two male actors to play both male roles. “(T)here are always two sides to every story,” she writes in the show’s program. “So why not bring the audience two versions of the same story.”
So on open night, Young played Davis and Jacob Hodgson was Matt – and finer performances are hard to imagine. As a result, so too is Young in the role of Matt and Hodgson as Davis, since both are so perfectly cast in their initial, opening night roles.
Davis is a hot-shot book editor who got lucky with a manuscript he pulled from the slush file. He’s obnoxious and arrogant with a severe mean streak – and he delights in thoroughly embarrassing others. Why Matt has maintained any kind of relationship with his college roommate from freshman year is unclear. But there ARE moments when Davis seems to really care about Matt and his well-being.
Young, another of the area’s rising stars, grounds Davis in reality. Sure, Davis is a major jerk, but Young offers glimpses of his softer, more human side. So while you might despise the character – especially after a climactic scene towards the show’s end – Young gives a masterful performance from start to finish.
So too does Hodgson, who is provided far more to work with from the playwright. Matt’s pain is made clear seconds into the show, as Hodgson’s face and hands clearly reveal the mental and physical anguish Matt is experiencing – and his stellar performance gets even better as the night progresses. He is especially adept at exploring Matt’s shyness and vulnerability – and he shines in a scene in which Matt is totally absorbed by a song Christina sings. (Watch his face slowly light up as the song progresses.)
As Christina, Morgan Chard is not to be envied. Not only does Rapp give the character little depth for her to play with, but she also has to modify her performance nightly to counterbalance the actors switching roles. It’s quite a challenge – and probably a lot of fun, too – and Chard’s hard work pays off quite well.
The Ant’s intimate space serves the production quite well. A first act sex scene that includes partial nudity and simulated sex could have been problematic, but Ferrante keeps the actors and the audience in their respective comfort zones by dimming the lights and the tasteful placement of bed sheets. (However, careful attention must be paid to the otherwise realistic – and disturbing – second act sexual encounter, which earned some unexpected chuckles on opening night because it looked like penetration was occurring through a sparkly, red gown.)
Despite its few flaws, “Red Light Winter” is a must-see production. Twice!

REVIEW:
‘Red Light Winter’
Planet Ant Theatre, 2357 Caniff St., Hamtramck. Fridays and Saturdays through March 21, plus Sundays March 8 & 15. Tickets: $15. For information: 313-365-4948 or http://www.planetant.com

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