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BWW Review: THE FANTASTICKS Reinvents Meta-Theatre at Pittsburgh Public

BWW Review: THE FANTASTICKS Reinvents Meta-Theatre at Pittsburgh Public

Full disclosure: I, as a rule, do not like The Fantasticks. I find it a little too precious, a little too clever for its own good, and more than a little too affected in its sometimes cloying love of its own wisdom, innocence and experience. The long-running original production's famous minimalist staging on a rustic pageant platform, with Dust Bowl costumes and deliberately simplistic, presentational and exclamatory acting, tends to feel more than a little bit like Bertolt Brecht for elementary schoolers. That this original production's design, style and spirit are so constantly recreated and deified does not help my love of the show.

Thankfully, Ted Pappas is one hell of a director, and his staging of The Fantasticks has redeemed it hugely in my eyes. Like his local colleage Stephen Santa (whom I have championed here many times, including the one-two punch of last year's Next to Normal and The Light in the Piazza), Pappas has a knack for looking at a show with fresh eyes, finding potential within productions that may have stagnated in the common cultural understanding. In this thrilling production, scaled up to fit the grand-but-intimate O'Reilly Theatre, the setting by James Noone is still "a theatre," but not the rustic pageant wagon most productions imitate; rather, his Fantasticks is set backstage in an old theatre not unlike the ones in which the play has been so often staged. Littered with old props and stage elements, the space gives the same sense of history, memory and possibility past that a bare, handmade traveler's stage may have given halfway through the last century.

Central to this interpretation is the split of the central role of El Gallo, the play's narrator. Traditionally, El Gallo (here portrayed by the golden-voiced Josh Powell) is a metatheatrical, fourth-wall breaking figure; he is both a bandit and a charlatan for hire, wordly wise and seductive in a virile, masculine way. Not that Powell isn't virile and masculine- he certainly is, to judge by the sighs of several women of all ages around me- but his and Pappas's interpretation of the character is somewhat more complex. This Fantasticks splits the Narrator from El Gallo distinctly, though both are played by Powell. During the Overture (here cued by dropping a record player's needle onto a copy of the show's cast recording, but played live), the empty theatre is entered first by Jason Shavers as The Mute- here conceived as a highly professional, somewhat businesslike stage manager- and then by Powell/El Gallo, who immediately presents himself as an energetic, visionary theatre director. He speaks to the audience not as a soliloquizing narratorial figure within the show, but as a creative; bristling with energy and thought, he gives off an aura of impassioned teacher. As the Director, Powell stages a simple modern-day, modern-dress tale of love triumphing over imaginary adversaries, with young lovers Matt (Jamen Nanthakumar) and Luisa (Mary Elizabeth Drake) overcoming the fictional feud between their fathers (Daniel Krell and Gavan Palmer).

Sensing that the two children need a bigger motivation to fall in love, the old men hire El Gallo, a "bandit" who is really a con artist/professional actor hybrid. Here, Powell steps into the narrative, distinguishing El Gallo from the Director with a scarf and more affected speech and mannerisms. To further complicate matters, his El Gallo is implied to be El Gay-o, if you'll pardon the pun. By the end of the play, Powell is playing four layers of character at once: the Director is playing the epicene El Gallo, who is then playing the dangerous adventurer "El Gallo, the Bandit," who is playing the roles of Matt and Luisa's individual fantasies of who this figure is to them. Each layer builds on the one beneath, and it's easy to see the relief the Director feels as each one is eventually peeled away, relieving the pressure of both performance and performativity. Nowhere else outside of Caryl Churchill will you see a somewhat asexual character playing a gay character playing a straight character playing a hypermasculine soap-opera lover. It must be exhausting, and if this Fantasticks were running on Broadway, I would be shaking in my boots if I had to compete for Best Actor against Powell.

Given the increased focus on the act of making theatre, with Powell and Shavers actively portraying theatre industry professionals alongside their in-show function as character actor and props master respectively, the "fictional characters" disappear just a little into the morass. This is a shame, as Nanthakumar and Drake are giving fantastic performances. Neither one allows themselves to step into the broad, declamatory style the show often wears, but deliver their performances realistically, as though this were a realistic and non-presentational musical. Drake's voice spins perfectly between legit soprano and modern musical theatre, never once going into the glass-shatteringly precious, airy-fairy mode so common among Luisas; Nanthakumar (who recently blew me away at LUDO's Broken Bride at NYMF) here affects a perfectly commonplace "young man musical theatre" voice, tuneful and light but sung without unnatural ardor or virtuosity.

The fathers, whose relationship swings back and forth between bonhomie and animosity from moment to moment, have slightly showier roles merely for the grotesquerie of the characters, and both Krell and Palmer manage to make the roles realistic while still maintaining the air of vaudevillian quirkiness that marks the two patriarchs. Less realistic and more surreal are the two old actors: Henry (Shakespeare mainstay Noble Shropshire), a geriatric ex-leading man, and Mortimer (Tony Bingham), an aging dimwit who specializes in death scenes and stunt work of a sort. The last two remaining members of a theatre troupe under El Gallo's employ, they have descended from playing Shakespeare to assisting in the bandit's "literary rapes:" stylized, idealized mock abductions, battles and duels for a lady's honor, guaranteed to make anyone look like a hero. (Pappas has wisely used an altered "It Depends on What You Pay" which cuts down on the constant and controversial overuse of the word "rape," instead of using the lackluster "Abduction Song" provided as an alternative.) Like El Gallo, these performers play multiple roles in the show, but theirs are paper-thin: as brigands, American Indians, Pirates or a variety of ethnic stereotypes in "Round and Round," Henry and Mortimer are always vaguely pathetic figures, the butt of a joke that they think is an epic.

Playing the Mute, Jason Shavers has the most thankless role in the show, and maybe in musical theatre, but he brings to the character of stage manager a brusque, efficient professionalism, perpetually seen in the background running through the script to make sure everything remains on cue. I had initially worried about the possible implications of using a black actor in the role of a wordless, personality-free servant figure, but Pappas's conception of him as SM to the Director's show-within-a-show erases this possibility. Even when he is handing props and costumes to people onstage, or serving as a set piece himself, this is no Step'n Fetchit role: Shavers, after all, technically outranks the "actors" in the "show," and he carries a slight sense of superior distance that anyone who has worked with a truly experienced stage manager will recognize immediately.

Though the wisdom of experience and the need for maturity as well as idealism in life and love remains a central theme of the play within the play, it's hard to read the show itself in Pappas's staging as anything but an allegory for the art of theatre itself: Matt and Luisa have begun by "performing" love, not "living" it, and it takes both life experience and a seasoned instructor in El Gallo to introduce them to depths and reality in their feelings and in their performances. Will an audience of people who haven't studied theatre get this level of meaning? I don't know, and I'm not sure it matters, either. Everyone can try to remember their own kind of September, when they were a little younger and a little less jaded; whether that is first love or the beginnings of an idealistic dream of creating something wonderful, it's all the same. You have to hurt a little to be able to heal.

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From This Author Greg Kerestan

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