BPF: "Rudy Doo" a Triumphant Close to Festival

By: Aug. 19, 2007

◊◊◊◊◊ out of five.

How fitting that the 26th Annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival should close with a play that embodies the spirit of the Festival and the Theatre in which it is being performed.  The festival was formed to celebrate new, local voices in theatre - from the page to the stage.  Spotlighters Theatre, where the play opened, has for over 45 years celebrated new, young, and talented theatre and theatre artists.  Rudy Doo, the self-described dark comedy by George Tilson, is the play; young and exceptionally talented director Jayme Kilburn and a thrilling cast of local talent are the artists.  That Rudy Doo is one of the best plays of the Festival and of the entire year to date in community theatre is icing on a pretty excellent piece of cake.

Rudy Doo concerns the convergence of three disparate lives at a time when all three are broken and in need of healing.  One of the three is a young writer with cerebral palsy.  The second is a young lady of privilege running from the life (on the surface at least) most of us would probably love to have.  And the third, Rudy Doo, a former professional hockey player, is recovering from an accident that has left him angry and struggling with guilt and impulses his mind can no longer control.  How their lives reach a tragic turning point, and what gets them to that point is the meat of this short, but emotionally powerful piece of theatre.  And, yes, it is actually quite funny.  But its strength lies in its unrelenting look at coping with loss and the terrible turns a life can take, whether by fate or by bad choices.  How all of this plays out is the reason to see this work, and so I will reveal nothing more of the plot.

At the core of this resonant production is the bold, sharply focused and joyously theatrical direction of Jayme Kilburn.  She is one of a handful of young directors currently working the boards in Baltimore that again and again redefine contemporary local theatre.  Miss Kilburn has a gift for turning works like this into finely crafted theatre pieces (last year she directed the superb Hope's Arbor at the same venue).  Her knack is a keen eye for doing things with her actors and her space that can only be done live on stage - she celebrates the medium, she doesn't try to compensate for its limitations over film or even over more equipped spaces.  Kilburn creates magical pictures in a non-stop panorama on a surreal blue "everyspace" with only hints of reality around the edges designed by Jose Diaz.  Mr. Diaz has designed a series of moving boxes that double for beds, a restaurant, a house, a church and a bar.  Around the edges, hung askew, much like the ideas in the minds of the characters, are windows, chairs and tree limbs.  Miss Kilburn's staging allows for no gaps in the action whatsoever - I found myself literally holding my breath more than once - and the specificity of her blocking never once left in doubt within seconds of a change where we were in time and space.  (I can't even imagine what Mr. Tilson's script and stage directions must have read like!)  Galen Lande's lighting, equally surreal and specific adds to the overall effect, as does the choice of simple costumes with accessories to help us with the details.  Three of the actors function as a Greek chorus of sorts and also play a wide variety of characters that touch the lives of the three.  They are all completely in black, save for a blue gauzy scarf, which within seconds redefines their characters, simply by how they are tied to the actors.  It is that kind of really sharp use of theatrical conventions that sets this director apart, and really makes this work soar.

Those three of the "Greek Chorus" (Michael Tan, Larry Levinson and Natalie Chavez Leimkuhler) have a really tough job to do, and must simply be exhausted after a performance.  All of the roles they play are so varied, what they do with them is astonishing.  There are several times when all three literally turn around, adjust their scarf, and become completely different characters.  For whatever reason, the male roles tend to be more of the stock variety, but Mr. Tan and Mr. Levinson do a fine job of being completely whole and real without being cliche.  Ms. Chavez Leimkuhler is absolutely astonishing, as she works through a variety of rather unsavory women and a tragic heroine.  She is called upon to adjust her social status, her accent and her posture without the aid of anything save a lighting cue, her scarf and the very rare prop in her hands.  At one point, she plays an abusive nurse at a home for the handicapped, where she viciously stretches out the arm and fingers of the young man with C.P. His terrified screams and the gleeful stare in her eyes combined to make a moment of chills down the spine.  Not a few in the audience looked away in disgust, so frightening is her performance.

As the title character, R. Brett Rohrer, a local actor with a gift for good guy roles, really steps out of his comfort zone in playing Rudy Doo.  Here he is a mean, broken man, given to shouting nearly everything he says (a construct of his brain injury), and with a penchant for some heavy duty swearing.  Rohrer has really developed the physicality of the role, focusing on using his body language to convey as much of the story of his character as the lines he speaks.  Stalking the set menacingly, he even gives off the air of danger when he lies sleeping.  Still, Tilson has created a history for this character that allows Mr. Rohrer to really explore the fullest range of emotion from sensitive child to guilt-ridden, self-loathing adult.  And, as the play necessitates, he also radiates a certain sex-appeal that draws the ladies to him, and a certain masculinity that draws other men to him as well.  In a role that forces extremes, Rohrer has found a way to never be excessive or trite, and never without an edge.

Jessyca Henderson, as young socialite Alison Avery Anderson, does a superb job of portraying a head strong woman, with just enough vulnerability that you instantly care about her.  She also goes through a complete life story, and like Mr. Rohrer, manages to keep it all straight and building, even as the script purposely skips back and forth through time.  Miss Henderson is often called upon mid-sentence to switch from "in the scene" to "narrator" to "character in another time and place."  That she does so with a slight movement, tilt of the head or vocal adjustment is a testament to the actress, her director and her playwright.  In her final scene, Miss Henderson reacts with a facial expression that I will not soon forget - and again literally gave me chills.

The standout performance of this play full of standout performances (and easily the best ensemble work to grace a local stage in a year or more) is that of Shane Logue, who plays Vic McAllen, poet, writer, good guy and cerebral palsy victim.  Actually, he never stoops to the easy emotional tie with the audience, so "victim" is the wrong choice of words.  Rather, he is a hero - a triumph over mountain-sized hurdles, and not just those caused by his handicap.  Had I not seen Mr. Logue in previous productions, I would have thought he was really afflicted by C.P.  The frustration and visible pain caused by the physicality of the handicap is etched in his face, and one instantly feels pity for Vic, so real is Mr. Logue's portrayal.  But, not long after the play starts, pity is replaced with wonder and even a tinge of envy that in spite of it all, Vic has lead a life that is tough to be sure, but is so much more than "making the best of a difficult situation."  The aforementioned scene where, as a young child, Vic is pretty much tortured by his nurse is agonizing to watch, tempered only by the joy he later gets from living on his own.  Logue is equally amazing with his line delivery - not only is he fully in the throes of palsy shaking and involuntary muscle twitches, he is right on the money emotionally.  His performance is one this critic will not forget, and the standard he has set is a high one, indeed.

If there is anything negative to say about the play itself, it comes down to two very small things.  First, the Greek Chorus convention - when the three actors chant lines about "the walking wounded" is a bit heavy-handed and really unnecessary.  That convention is best used when the three actors silently drape their scarves over the three main characters at the beginning and the end of the play, and silently manipulate the set to create various locales.  And it is clear that they represent "everyman" by the sheer fact that they play every other role.  Secondly, the play's ending is rather abrupt.  True, it brings us right to where the play started, but the monumental scene that precedes it requires the audience to wrap its mind around a startling event.  There is no time to digest it before the lights go out and the curtain call begins.   That, and at a mere 85 minutes, including intermission, I wanted more!  What a great thing when you don't want to leave, right?

In his program notes, Mr. Tilson tells us that he knew all three of these people at one time or another, even dedicating the play to the man who inspired the role of Vic.  What a rich life this playwright has apparently had, and how fortunate are we that he has so willingly shared three small parts of it with us.

PHOTOS: By Amy Jones.  TOP to BOTTOM: Jessyca Henderson, Shane Logue and R. Brett Rohrer; Natalie Chavez Leimkuhler and Shane Logue; Jessyca Henderson, Natalie Chavez Leimkuhler and Michael Tan; R. Brett Rohrer and Shane Logue; Main Page - the cast of Rudy Doo.



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From This Author - James Howard


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