BWW Review: Clauder Prize Winner Premieres at Portland Stage
Portland Stage presented the world premiere of a work they brought though their prestigious Clauder New Work Competition, READ TO ME. The play, selected among 170 scripts, is written by Brendon Pelsue and directed by his brother Rory - both Yale Drama School Graduates. The resulting work is ambitious and fully in keeping with Portland Stage "magical realism " theme for the season.
READ TO ME is potentially well chosen - filled with deeply searing drama - a child dying in a children's hospital with adults' trying to make sense 0f this absurdity. The subject matter is dense with possibility, which, regrettably, in tis production is never fully realized.
Much of the difficulty lies in the script itself, which addresses significant issues, chooses a bold style, contains a few poetic passages, and then never manages to deliver the emotional impact or well-crafted dialogue such a work deserves
READ TO ME is about the completely, devastatingly, meaninglessly absurd experience of watching a child die. There is meat to this story; there are some beautifully crafted characters and potential for fine interaction - though this rarely occurs except in a poetic ten -minute sequence on silence on dying - that is the high point of the second half of the play.
There is no question Brendon Peleus has chosen a major topic and found some creative conceits in the style of magical realism, but there is a great deal of dialogue and action that is pedestrian and cries out for greater intensity, passion, clarity. The absurdist, awkwardness of his visison is underscored by Rory Pelsue's static direction, which serves a loin,t but also freezes the emotional response.
The production, designed Anita Stewart, is one of the elements of that clarity - dominated by three hospital beds, a frighteningly oversized clock, and a raised platform for outside activity - this design says it all. Byron Winn's lighting design uses almost no frontal illumination, only white overheads to lend the clinical element. Cole McCarthy stays simple with the costumes, and Kathy Ruvana's soundscape manages the few otherworldly effects.
The cast is asked to be part of a very stylized staging that frequently robs them of moments of emotional verity. The characters are well delineated and each allows for some moments of special truth. Ian Carlsen as the Dad, Tom Ford as the bewildered, yet enlightened Elmo, and Esau Mora as Lawrence succeed best in finding the moments of truth. Grace Bauer does her finest with a thankless series of roles and a lackluster final speech. Regrettably, the core of the drama lies with the young actor who can provide the heart wrenching poignancy of the dying Tony. Lukis Crowell misses the mark entirely and thus looses the intensity and empathy of the story.
Despite its difficulties and these caveats, Portland Stage is to be commended for its herculean commitment to developing and producing new work. Its Clauder Competition is a major gift to the arts across the theatre world and in Maine.
Photograph courtesy Portland Stage, Aaron Flacke, photographer
READ TO ME ran October 22 until November 10, 2019 at Portland Stage, 25 A Forest Ave., Portland ME 04101 207- 774-0466