The Loeb Mainstage is a cavernous space made for epics and musicals. But in Simpatico, the first student mainstage production of the '99-'00 season, director Jesse Kellerman '01 tries to make it as quiet as whispered secrets and as intimate as a lonely bedroom late at night. The result--a production as touching as it is unsettling, as intimate as it is far-reaching--is not flawless, but it is tremendous nonetheless.
The emotional territory of Simpatico, the most recent work by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard, is something familiar to Kellerman. His production last year of David Mamet's American Buffalo in the Loeb Ex explored the same realm of underworld deceit and betrayal, the same search for loyalty and friendship that marks this play. That is not to say Simpatico is a large scale retreading of the same dramatic ground Kellerman mapped so clearly last year. Sam Shepard is not David Mamet. He isn't able to maintain the same level of unshaking intensity that Mamet can create in his plays. Running at nearly three hours, Simpatico as a written work feels rough in places, as though Shepard is simply marking time between the dramatic flashpoints of his play. Kellerman seems uncertain what to do with this between time, with the unfolding of character histories and endless plot complications. At times the dialogue almost becomes a burden to the play, an interruption to its more powerful, silent moments.
But when he's at his best, Shepard can pull tricks of which Mamet is incapable. His characters, unlike Mamet's tough-talkers, are willing to show their own vulnerability. They are desperate to do so in some cases. And this is where Kellerman's production shines. Kellerman has an eye for portraying human frailty, for capturing the looks and muffled breaths that mark us at our weakest moments. What is most amazing is that he can make these looks and breaths seem as powerful in the 500 seat mainstage theater as they did in the infinitely smaller Ex. In an auditorium that was large enough to enclose a battle between two armies in last year's production of Richard III, Kellerman can make the distance between two characters--often no more than a few feet, sometimes as small as a few inches--seem like the most important space in the world. And he can hold an audience breathless waiting not for a shout but for a whimper.
None of this would be possible, of course, without the remarkable cast of Simpatico. Shepard's play presents the aftermath of a 15-year-old case of blackmail, showing how both the blackmailers and the blackmailed must struggle to shape for themselves normal, fulfilling lives. At the center of the play is Carter, the mastermind of the nefarious scheme, played with passion and subtlety by David Modigliani '02. Carter is the only character to have profited from the blackmail scandal, but Modigliani is wise enough to show that his success and power are as much mental creations as they are facts of reality, and they are capable of being shattered at a moment's notice. Vinnie, Carter's less fortunate partner in crime, is harder to get a handle on. He is pathetic and clever, powerless and manipulative by turns, and Blake Lawit '97 depicts his mental shifts as occuring as rapidly and uncontrollably as thunderstorms. Perhaps the only character in the play to have found peace and happiness is Simms, the victim of the blackmail scheme, superbly played by Michael Davidson '00. There is a wisdom and depth to Davidson's voice that grounds the entire production. But the performance by Catherine Gowl '02 as Cecilia, Vinnie's lover and Simm's protege in the art of coming to terms with lost dreams, steals the show. Hers is a part made more of gestures than of words, and her moments of stillness and transformation set the standard by which the other electric moments in the play must be judged.
And there are many electric moments in the play. Set designer John Gordan '01 places Shepard's characters in what resembles a series of stacked prison cells, and it is in this segmented, sequestered reality--under the blinding, white lights of Matt Denman '00--that they must fight to find companionship and solace. The difficulty of coming together in such antiseptic enclosures makes the play's moments of human contact, or near contact, all the more heart-stopping. And it makes the play's final image, an image of ultimate loneliness, seem all the more sad for its inevitability. It is an image that is not easy to forget. And for the first time in the play, the blinding lights turn softer and more human. They turn the color of smoldering embers, powerful enough to light a fire on the mainstage.
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