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Sparkling Ensemble Brings MRS. DALLOWAY to Life at Head Trick Theatre

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Sparkling Ensemble Brings MRS. DALLOWAY to Life at Head Trick Theatre

Observing works of art can create an experience where the viewer has no idea what they are looking at or what the artist is trying to say but they cannot help but appreciate and enjoy the undeniable beauty of the colors and the composition. A similar reaction occurs with Head Trick Theatre's current production of Mrs. Dalloway, a play overflowing with gorgeous performances and staging in service of a script that is at times confounding, infuriating or just dull.

Receiving its U.S. premiere with this production, Mrs. Dalloway is adapted by Hal Coase from the novel by Virginia Woolf. Coase's play stays true to the plot, revolving around two connected stories happening during one day in London in the 1920s. In one story, the titular character, Clarissa Dalloway, goes about her upper-class business as she prepares for a high society party she will be hosting that evening. The other story concerns a veteran of the first World War, Septimus, who is suffering from what we would today call PTSD, and his wife who is struggling to deal with this new reality concerning her changed husband.

Woolf's stream-of-consciousness style featured in the novel, as it jumps around in perspective, viewpoints, time, the internal vs. the external, is an acquired taste. This play features the same kind of feel as it also jumps around quite a lot, from one scene or character to the next, from external actions to internal thoughts, often jumping quickly from one to another and not always in a way that makes sense or makes it easy to follow. There are moments where the audience is unsure of what is happening, which character is talking, why they are saying what they are saying, and if their words are external speech or internal thoughts.

Even when it is clear, it's not always necessary, as there are many moments when the audience is left to wonder "why is this happening? Why are we seeing this scene or moment? What is the point of this?" That begins at the very start of the production when actors appear and introduce themselves, warming up the audience with friendly chit chat and jokes. The whole thing seems irrelevant and like a waste of time. That is followed by the first part of the play coming across as nothing more than an audiobook of Mrs. Dalloway, with lots of telling and no showing. It takes a long time for the play to finally turn into a play, with the audience actually seeing things happen, rather than just hearing about them.

For anyone not familiar with the novel, they may be especially confused, as the title character disappears for long stretches of time and it takes a very long time for it to become clear why they've been watching these other characters so much. Once that realization comes, it doesn't help much as the audience never really gets to know the characters or really connect with them emotionally, they are mostly written as stereotypes, rather than developed humans. And when the climax is finally reached, Coase makes sure to hammer the message and the point across with the subtlety of an Acme anvil falling on the head of a character in a Looney Tunes cartoon.

On the other hand, director Rebecca Maxfield is very talented and has created some undeniably gorgeous moments here. Her staging is beautiful and she seems to have done everything she can to make things clearer and easier to understand, with a lot of success. Scenes that could be extremely confusing have the confusion removed by her deft hand at the controls. Using the various platforms, levels, steps and furniture, she accomplishes some perfectly staged moments, assisting in the creation of tension and emotion or helping to remove it, always in an appropriate way. Even when it's hard to follow, Maxfield's production is one that demands and holds onto the audience's attention.

That success is in no small part due to the charismatic, talented, and uniformly fantastic ensemble. More than a few audience members will likely leave this production wanting to see all of the actors again, in a better play. There really is no weak link in the group and it would be unfair to even try to single any one of them out over or above the rest.

Becky Minard gives a completely unselfish performance in the title role, one which she embodies but never uses to command attention or take over a scene or moment. She lends focus to her cast-mates and their work when she is not in a scene and works perfectly with them when she is sharing moments and working off of them. As Septimus and others, Shawn Fennell is amazingly electric and charismatic. It's a role that some actors could play as ridiculous or over the top or just crazy, but Fennell grounds his performance in truth and reality, making Septimus real and never going for the big-but-false choice.

Septimus' struggling wife is played by the radiant Rebecca Christie, who also plays a number of other characters. This is another performance that could deteriorate into caricature in the hands of a less talented and less committed actress. Christie is also wonderful at the other roles she plays, giving each character a little something different, making each unique in some way. And her climactic solo moment may just break your heart.

Playing a host of other characters, and rounding out the cast, are Lee Rush and Jeffrey Ouellette. Rush is an absolute chameleon as she changes shape, figuratively speaking, with each character she brings to life. Her various personalities, accents, mannerisms, etc. are wonderful to watch and it's a pleasure to see her work. Ouellette has only slightly less range or variation in his characters, but he is no less charismatic and enthralling to watch. He's also a master at portraying characters who are just this side of creepy, intimidating or downright scary.

Maxfield and her cast perfectly utilize the AS220 space and create a wonderfully intimate experience. There are a few sudden and distracting light changes which don't add to the telling of the story and some sound cues are too loud and overwhelm what the actors are saying, but other than that it's a technically solid production. It's one that, like any great piece of art, should be viewed and appreciated for the beauty found within, despite the problematic packaging.

Mrs. Dalloway will be running through Sunday, November 17 at the AS220 Black Box space at 95 Empire Street in downtown Providence. Performances are at Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $20 and may be purchased through the company's website, headtricktheatre.org.

Note: Brown and RISD students can get free tickets with their student ID.

Pictured (L to R): Lee Rush and Becky Minard. Photo by Samantha Gaus.


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