This past weekend, Oct. 5-7, the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC) kicked off its new season at the Loeb Experimental Theatre with “FirstShot,” a series of four short plays marking the directorial debuts of Renée L. Pastel ’09, Jillian J. Goodman ’09, Nathan D. Johnson ’09, and Simon J. Williams ’09. Produced by Margaret M. Wang ’09, Barry A. Shafrin ’09, and Zach B. Sniderman ’09, the performance featured works by the playwrights David Ives, Tom Stoppard, Anton Chekhov, and Alan Bennett.
Each play was presented in a straightforward manner, without any nonsensical or superfluous elements added to a production for the sake of being “original.”
The evening began with the one play that could have benefited from a bit of creative tinkering. Ives’ short work, “Words, Words, Words,” is a humorous postmodern farce that contemplates the age-old question, “What are the chances that three chimps in captivity on typewriters will reproduce ‘Hamlet?’” The humor comes from a myriad of literary references, including the chimps’ constant, oblivious mutterings of Shakespearean lines.
Playing the three monkeys, Jay D. Musen ’09 was head-on with every deadpan joke while Kathleen E. Hale ’09 and Rory N. Kulz ’08 both brought over-the-top physical comedy to the performance.
With such fertile material to work with, it would have been nice to have seen director Pastel take a slightly more adventurous approach. There was something too literal about her direction. The play desperately called for a crazy, surrealist approach that never materialized.
Nonetheless, Pastel made sure that the most important elements of the play—the allusions and intertexuality of quotations—were clearly emphasized through the actors’ clean delivery of their lines.
Stoppard’s “A Separate Peace,” the second play in the program, is a comedy centered on a mysterious man, John Brown (Sean R. Fredricks ’07). Brown checks himself into a hospital, despite having nothing wrong with him except for a desire to escape from the rest of the world.
Fredricks exuded a strong and likable presence. There were even a few moments when his exuberance and confidence threatened to overshadow the rest of the five-member ensemble.
Goodman’s sense of space was keen: her use of the built-in balcony in the black box theater was both imaginative and practical, transforming the small floor space into a believable hospital.
Unlike the first two plays, the second half of the production consisted of two one-man performances—Chekhov’s “Swan Song” and Bennett’s “Playing Sandwiches.”
In the Johnson directed “Swan Song,” Jesse W. Barron ’08 played the role of Wasill Svletlovldoff, an actor past his prime who wallows in alcohol and laments his wasted life. Barron handled the emotions with such poignancy that it excused the actor from his occasional flubbing of lines. His entire performance was tinged with an ironic humor that was absolutely delicious and would have been welcomed in even greater doses.
The one problematic element came during the moments of dialogue between Barron and the prerecorded character of Nikita Ivanitch (the voice of producer Sniderman). The recording was stiff and unnatural. Johnson would have been better off employing a live voiceover instead, giving Barron the opportunity to interact in real-time with another actor.
Set designer Britt Caputo ’08, who is also a Crimson editor, created her best scenery for “Swan Song.” The scattered flowers, a wispy candle and a fallen curtain provided a haunting backdrop and added symbolic gravitas to Barron’s performance.
Tony-award winning playwright Alan Bennett’s “Playing Sandwiches” is, in essence, a confession of a convicted pedophile named Wilfred.
Williams could not have picked a more timely play to direct in light of the current scandal in Washington.
Jack E. Fishburn ’08 successfully wrestled the challenging role of Wilfred by slowly revealing his dark secret and effectively transitioning from levity to heartbreak in a sweeping crescendo. Near the end, Fishburn muttered the bleak line, “It’s the one part of my life that feels right...and that’s the bit that’s wrong,” with a chilly eeriness.
Sound designer Nick J. Shearer ’09 took a rather minimalist approach with the use of music and sound effects throughout the production. But in the rare instances when they were employed, they succeeded in heightening both humorous and more dramatic moments. Lighting designer Josh Randall’s subtle uses of light also complemented the performers in an unobtrusive manner.
While the entire evening was quite enjoyable, I would have preferred to have seen the four plays in a different sequence. The producers were clearly presenting the works in an order that progressed from the light-hearted to the darker and more serious; this decision caused the entire performance to be off-balance. By the end of the evening, it felt as if the opening work “Words, Words, Words,” was trivialized and stripped of its significance, despite being a fine work of its own right.
Nevertheless, each of the four first-time directors exhibited a distinctive and creative voice. I hope their next efforts in longer, extended works would take greater risks and traverse deeper waters, aspects that were missing in this production.