BWW Review: THE DEAD at Scena Theatre
Carl Gudenius' richly detailed set design for The Dead transforms a black box at the Atlas into an elegant, Christmas-decorated home in Edwardian Dublin. That warmth and Marianne Meadows' lighting provide the perfect environment for Richard Nelson's 2000 adaptation of James Joyce's 1907 novella. For Scena Theatre, director Robert McNamara gathers an ensemble of 13 to fill the rooms of the Morkan family for its annual holiday meal and musicale. In the words of Gabriel Conroy, a Morkan nephew and toastmaster at table, the production amounts to an evening of "good humor and kind attention" for both the viewers and the viewed.
The hour and 45 minute play with music lacks two common elements, and theatregoers shouldn't miss either. Instead of a plot, the audience gets to know a group of characters: Conroy, played with sincerity by LOUIS LAVOIE, and his wife Gretta (the excellent Danielle Davy) who sing a gorgeous duet, "Goldenhair" before she movingly shares a tragic episode from her youth; Sisters Kate and Julia Morkan (the chipper Rosemary Regan and the charming Andrea Hatfield), music teachers, gracious hostesses, proper Dublin maiden aunts who can also cut a wicked rug with their niece, Mary Jane (Stacy Whittle) and stop a show with "Naughty Girls"; Miss Molly Ivors (Mo O'Rourke and Michael (Daniel Riker) who try to stop it themselves with "Parnells' Plight"; Ivors is a bit of a liberated woman-Michael, a music student; O'Rourke is ready for the lead in a revival of Wildcat or The Unsinkable Molly Brown; Riker, Tommy-Tune-tall, dances enthusiastically and impeccably somehow without ever using the balls of his feet; and Mr. Browne (Buck O'Leary), a theatre manager, Bartell D'Arcy (Leo Delgado), a singer, and Freddy Malins (John Gerard Healy), a Jack the Lad who drinks too much, who join Conroy and Michael in a charming male chorale, "Queen of our Hearts," to salute their hostesses. No plot and, better still, no microphones/amplifiers. When was the last time an audience in a DC theatre heard the human voice unhampered in a room, singing and speaking?
Shaun Davey's musical score sounds somehow familiar, and that's its originality; he's used texts from Oliver Goldsmith, Joyce, Balfe, and others. The specific brilliance of the music is that it sounds like music that would be sung in a parlor, as it is in The Dead, rather than in a public venue. Greg Watkins ably supports the performers on keyboards.
Alisa Mandel's costumes feature wonderful velvet skirts for the Morkans, a sumptuous red dress for Gretta, and a prim suit for Molly Ivors. Mandel's drab ensemble for the unhappy mum of Freddy helps the already thoroughly morose Carol McCaffrey look even more unhappy. The men simply "dress for dinner." Choreographer Raquis Petree takes his cue from the score and crafts steps that look like people would dance them in their living rooms: social dancing not theatrical. When the unseen downstairs neighbor indicates discontent with the music and dancing, Petree choreographs the ebullient, extra noisy "Wake the Dead" for the company to make the neighbor wish he hadn't.
As Joyce did not, this adaptation of his work (published in the 1917 collection The Dubliners), doesn't try to conceal that happy celebrations can contain sorrowful moments; the true romantic knows that joy and melancholy cannot exist without each other.
McNamara's lovely production of The Dead, a holiday gift in Scena Theatre's 31st season, runs through January 12. For tickets, visit http://scenatheatre.org/
photo: Jae Yi photography