BWW Reviews: Arena Stage Gives Solo Performer a Chance with LOVELAND
When we first meet the exuberant airline passenger Frannie Potts in Ann Randolph's solo piece Loveland, she's eager to get the journey started - fly over the wondrous American landscape and appreciate all that it offers from a birds-eye view. Upon entering Arena Stage's intimate Kogod Cradle at the Mead Center for American Theater for a performance of Loveland, I too was eager. The Kogod Cradle Initiative, part of Arena's New Play Institute, purports to offer a chance for DC theatregoers to experience emerging work - a noble and exciting thing in and of itself, but perhaps even more interesting when the featured offering is a solo piece.
In this realm of the theatre, it could be said that many try, but not all succeed in doing a solo piece particularly if the piece is intended to be - as this one is - a 'therapy' session for the artist. This is because the emotional attachment to the story may hinder the artist in looking objectively at whether the show as a theatrical piece 'works.' It's always an exciting experience to see how it will all work out.
In this case, I am happy to report, there's potential even if it is largely untapped in its current state.
What starts out as a comedic story about an eager flier annoyed that her fellow passengers don't appreciate her enthusiasm for the journey rather than the destination, transitions to the quirky performance artist Potts - while in the air - reminiscing about her life, her sometimes contentious but ultimately lovely and close relationship with her mother, her 'oneness' with nature, and her somewhat eyebrow-raising activities at Whole Foods. We don't know where Frannie's heading on her journey, until it's revealed she's headed to her hometown of Loveland to fulfill her mother's wish as to what to do with her ashes. Ultimately, Potts' story is one of dealing with loss, appreciating what she had, and finding her way in a world that's without her mother.
Randolph - who voices the character of Frannie and others (her mother, a nursing home worker or two, a funeral home worker, a yoga instructor, other plane passengers etc.) - is hugely successful in creating and portraying a focal character that is very human. The same can be said about those characters with whom Frannie interacts in her memories and aboard the plane. For good reason, the most richly drawn of these supporting players is Frannie's classical music and nature-loving mother with a penchant for speaking what's ever on her mind.
Yet, the constant shifts in tone in the play - as well as Frannie's grating nature - are to the detriment of letting the audience members really care about Frannie, her plight, and appreciate the extent to which her life has been impacted by those around her, including her mother.
The heartfelt moments, which mostly consists of her sharing memories of her mother (seriously, can we just have a show about her?), quickly give way to other things. There are vulgar discussions of sexual activity that go on far too long, numerous 'performances' by aspiring artist Frannie (she has an affinity to matching facial gestures to sound compositions, and I will leave it at that), and many more moments heavy on the 'quirk' that seem to exist largely to force audience laughter. Some of these moments happen organically - Potts' diatribes about tourists who experience nature via movies as the visitor centers at wilderness parks rather in the wilderness, for example - while others seem to be placed within the show for shock value. In the latter category we have most of the discussion of Potts' escapades at a yoga studio and Whole Foods, and a rather unforgettable song that Potts sings in her mother's nursing home, though none of which will be completely spoiled here. The ones that don't seem to be shoved into the play seem to work the best.
We do, however, get payoff from enduring the many attempts at laugh lines in a touching final scene.
Structurally, I will concede that the seemingly endless shifts in tone work to capture the rollercoaster ride one might experience following the death of a close loved one. Yet, simply from a matter of playwriting, it left me wondering whether Randolph was unsure as to how to incorporate comedic and heartfelt moments in her play and achieve a strong and appreciable balance.
Added to this point, although Potts is the very definition of a human character, the fact that she was extraordinarily grating to listen to - particularly in her hyper moments - made it even harder for me to overlook the tone issues in the piece.
As much as I found Potts annoying to the point where I felt like I would want to jump out of the plane if forced to sit near her, I do have to give Randolph credit for an unrelenting, energetic performance that fully captures her zest for life. Randolph also proves successful in taking on the other characters with whom Frannie interacts (Wayne Wilderson voices others via a recording). Although sometimes the speaking patterns she selected for each of the other characters or for 'performance artist Frannie' were not the most consistent at the performance I attended, she did well to differentiate all of the characters involved in telling Potts' tale. Her take on the mother was the most consistent.
As directed by Joshua Townshend-Zellner, the production has few frills. Mostly Randolph sits in a chair or walks around it to tell Frannie's story. Sound and lighting effects (the latter designed by Andrés Holder), as well as fog, are used sparingly, but with purpose. These are all good choices. There are few distractions from highlighting the real purpose of the piece - to tell Frannie's story of love and loss. With additional dramaturgical help (Jocelyn Clarke is credited as a dramaturg), the story could become even more focused and purposeful.
It's possible that Randolph will get there. Yet, while I commend her for taking the stage alone and baring soul - as well as Arena for taking a chance on a new work - it's not there yet.
Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission.
Photo: Ann Randolph pictured; by Teresa Wood.
"Loveland" plays through April 13, 2014 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater (1101 6th St, SW in Washington, DC). For tickets, call the box office at 202-488-3300 or purchase them online.