Review: Solid 'Temptation' Ravishes Loeb Mainstage

ArtsMonday Review

Temptation

Loeb Mainstage, October 24-November 1

The HRDC’s production of Vaclav Havel’s Temptation, which kicked off last Friday with a glitzy opener on the Loeb Mainstage, is, in a word, solid. Working under the competent direction of Geordie Broadwater ’04, the show’s talented cast brings a degree of energy to Havel’s rather bland script, and the resulting effort, despite lacking real nuance, is viable theater.

Temptation is a retelling of the Faust tale (coincidentally, another Faust rendering goes up in the Loeb Ex next weekend), and is lucky to find an excellent lead in Greg Gagnon ’04 as Dr. Foustka. Though Gagnon is particularly good at seeming small and meek—at several points in the play, he crumples up into an admirable fetus—he does enough to endow his Foustka with bottled-up menace. It is in his one-on-one interaction with other characters, however, that Gagnon particularly shines: though his initial dialogue with John Dewis’s satanic Fistula is a trifle stilted, the actors play off each other increasingly well, and his well-deployed balancing of melodrama and pathos in his dealings with his lover Dr. Vilma (Julia Morton ’07) shines.

The supporting cast works together very well. Morton mixes irony and earnestness splendidly, showing tremendous promise in her Harvard debut. Sara Petersen, as Foustka’s long-suffering love interest Marketa, starts her attraction to him suitably wide-eyed and ends it in a disturbingly potent way. Cassie Fliegel ’06, A.J. Wolosenko ’06, and Andrew Shimomura all turn in entertaining performances as Foustka’s sycophantic coworkers (Shimomura doing far and away the best job of the three), and Rowan Dorin ’07 does the same as a lower-level manager of sorts. Mike Hoagland ’07, as the director of the scientific organization (“The Institute”) in which Foustka works, is wonderfully stilted, and makes fabulous use of his body language; and in her brief appearance as Foustka’s landlady, Allison Smith ’06 contributes well. And finally, vigorous kudos to Pippi Kessler ’05 for her dynamically awesome entries and exits as the silent “Secret Messenger.”

It is Dewis’s Fistula, however, that most deserves positive acknowledgement. Charismatic and professional, Dewis projects more of a presence than anyone else in the cast: though Havel’s translated prose seems to want to use an absurd straightforwardness to jarring effect, this sensation only comes across when connected with Dewis’ forceful delivery. Indeed, it is only when Fistula is onstage that the production achieves the disturbing surreality it seems to try to achieve elsewhere: a second act monologue in which Fistula invokes the impossibility of Satanic forgiveness against a swelling background of chanting is honestly gripping. An earlier entry of his from offstage, with the only accompanying sound the metallic clinking of uncertain objects inside his overcoat, is downright eerie.

But these points are highlights. The rest of Temptation, though far from bad, could capitalize on its own momentum far more than it does (though the play will no doubt improve in this area during its run), and some of its structural parallelisms and thematic points could be better tied in with its acting and staging. The quality of the use of lighting is irregular—though the silhouettes in the final scene are brilliant, the purple flashes accompanying Foustka’s quasi-pacts with Fistula could be better established and used elsewhere—and the bits of musical scoring occasionally hit and miss. The set is stylistically unremarkable, though the fog machines liven it up. The costumes are fabulous—the bowler hats, in particular, are clutch—but the choreography verges on mediocrity and, far worse, doesn’t seem integrated into the production as a whole.

However, if Temptation ever feels like it flags, it’s hard to find fault with the production. The acting is very good—a credit to the director—and some parts of the play (its treatment of the instability of boundaries between the institutional and the satanic, for example) come near to being thought-provoking. This is good Mainstage fare.

—Crimson Arts critic Patrick D. Blanchfield can be reached at blanchf@fas.harvard.edu.