Review: 'Lovers and Executioners' at Circle Theatre

Carol M. Rice

Any time you’re seeing a play that’s in verse, you have to be ready to adjust your usual sense of understanding, especially in the beginning. While Lovers and Executioners is much more modern than most verse plays, having been written in 1998, it was translated and revised from a comedy by 17th century playwright Montfleury, a rival of Moliere. The rhyme and rhythm is still there, but playwright John Strand provides a much more modern feel to it.

The play begins with a rather dark scene for a comedy: Bernard leaving his wife Julie to die on a deserted island for supposed infidelity. Jump three years ahead and Bernard is planning to marry again. The woman he wants to marry, Constance, wants nothing to do with him. Her mother (never seen in the play) has made the match for Bernard’s money, and Constance has fallen for new-to-town young Frederic. Her other suitor, Don Lope, is not happy about either of these new men in her life and has no problem pulling his sword at any provocation.

Frederic turns out to be Julie in disguise, aided by her faithful friend and would-be lover Octavius. Obviously she didn’t die, and now she wants revenge. Octavius will do anything for this woman and he helps her be appointed the town judge. She then promptly arrests her husband for the murder of his wife. I’m not going provide any spoilers as to whether she executes him for his crime, thereby doing to him what he tried to do to her, or whether she forgives him. You’ll need to see the show to find out.

The supporting characters in Lovers and Executioners are the most interesting, at least in this production. Richard Stubblefield as Octavius gives by far the most layered performance. He is invisible when he needs to be, yet always completely in the scene, and his love for Julie is apparent and heart-breaking from the beginning. A truly exceptional, understated performance.

Shane Strawbridge makes the most of his role as Guzman, the clownish servant of Bernard, who for some reason also acts as Bernard’s confidante. Considering the huge class difference between these two men, this is an odd choice. It almost feels like a character is missing. However, Mr. Strawbridge’s hilarious, spot-on performance makes you glad he’s on the stage as much as he is.

Another stand-out is Eric Dobbins as Don Lope. With his Inigo Montoya-esque accent and bravado, he delivers some of the funniest lines in the play, often as asides. Brilliant. He also comes across as an excellent swordsman, but alas - he is the only one, as the overall fight choreography is woefully inadequate. In the production I saw, the actors seemed very uncomfortable with it and there were sequences where swords didn’t even meet. Admittedly, Bernard and Julie/Frederic are supposed to be lousy swordsmen, but the choreography itself seemed ill-rehearsed. Hopefully this will improve during the run as the actors become more comfortable with it.

Claire Floyd deVries’ set was beautifully simple with faux stucco, stone, and woodwork. John Leach’s lighting and Rich Frolich’s sound design were complementary and worked well with the production. The costumes by Robin Armstrong were overall quite stunning, although Mr. Strawbridge’s shapeless rags and modern loafers were a distraction. Despite the line late in the play about Guzman being in rags, I don’t think it was meant literally – especially as close as he was with the resplendently dressed Bernard.

The script itself is, perhaps, the biggest problem with the production, as it can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a light comedy, a dark comedy, or a drama. The genres all seem to be present at various times and they don’t always work together. Director Robin Armstrong does what she can with it, but the second act begins to feel like a bizarre twist on Dr. Seuss after awhile, leaping back and forth between comedy and drama at will, complete with extra sing-song in the actors’ delivery.

Lovers and Executioners was the 1999 winner of the Helen Hayes Award: The Charles MacArthur Prize for Outstanding New Play, and in Circle Theatre’s production, it receives its Ft. Worth premiere. The production is well-done, so make it a full evening in downtown Ft. Worth by grabbing dinner at one of the surrounding restaurants before the show.


LOVERS AND EXECUTIONERS
Circle Theatre, 230 West Fourth Street, Ft. Worth, TX 76203
Runs through September 19. 

Actual days: Thursdays at 7:30; Fridays at 8:00, Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00. Tickets are $ 15.00 to 35.00
For info and tix go to www.circletheatre.com address or call the box office at 817-877-3040.

Review: 'Mass Appeal" at Circle Theatre

Charlie Bowles

Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Mass Appeal by Bill C. Davis is a play that appeals to people who have grown up in a church, which probably means most Americans. It doesn’t have to be a Catholic church, but knowing the social struggles that occur in church communities which spill over into a pastor’s office, and the humor those bring to the ministerial profession qualifies us to enjoy this comic look at Father Farley’s church. 

Father Farley is a parish priest with a long history in his church. He knows what his parishioners want, what they’ll stand for, and how to herd them along the narrow path. His history with them makes him popular, but may hinder his ability to challenge their thinking and habits. One day, a young seminary student comes into his church, interrupts his special dialogue sermon, and quickly becomes the priest’s responsibility. Mark Dolson, that seminary student, is a passionate firebrand ready to take on the shortcomings of Catholicism and breathe a new passion into Father Farley’s church. Along the way, there are serious philosophical questions to answer and allegations of personal sins to address. While these are very serious, the conflict between an old staid priest and the young firebrand is hilarious.

This juxtaposition between serious subject matter and hilarity takes a strong Director. Alan Shorter took Davis’ text, which is mildly amusing in the reading, and turned it into a laugh-out-loud comedic look at these subjects on the stage. Through design production choices, casting good actors, and directing their comic timing, he proved that “you can best address thorny subjects with honey.”

Circle’s stage was turned into a church office with a slide-out pulpit to make it into a sanctuary. Designed by Clare Floyd DeVries, the large ¾ thrust stage floor was covered in deeply colored wood planks with a couple of large oriental rugs. This floor abutted a rear wall, half-wood paneled with brick fireplace and wooden built-in book case under a couple of stained glass windows. Candelabra bulbs, pictures of The Pope and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a cross adorned the wall. With Father Farley’s desk in one corner and a small bar in the other, the set allowed for a great degree of movement around the stage. Props covered the desk and bar with books, a telephone, wine bottles, and a small 70’s era portable tape recorder. Hannah Law added these and many other touches to enhance the office setting. The stage had a warmth and comfort that made an audience feel peaceful. John Leach created a bright overall wash to eliminate shadows. This lighting supports comedy and probably should have telegraphed the nature of the show, though I didn’t get comedy from the promotions. At times the pulpit slid out and Leach darkened the stage to shine a spotlight on it, which infused a sense of gravity and solemnness into the story. This also elevated and exalted the priest without raising him and turned the stage into a sanctuary that included the audience. 

David H.M. Lambert designed a small set of believable sound effects appropriate for an office. What really stood out for me was the luscious sound track he created. Music from “The Lakehouse” by Rachel Portman and “Doubt” by Howard Shore created a deeply spiritual atmosphere which interrupted the levity of the story and said, “Yes, but remember, this is also a serious subject.”

Sarah Tonemah clothed the two actors in costumes you’d imagine a priest and young student would wear. Father Farley changed between priestly robes and a black clerical suit for priestly daily wear. His young protégée began in casual youth clothing, including a running suit and casual street clothes, but then he donned his own black clerical suit when he became a deacon. What I remember most was the beauty of Father Farley’s robe of forest green over white with a golden braid design that looked like a piece of art. This choice for Father Farley added to his overall warmth through the colors, but that majestic art made him a force to be heard.

Father Tim Farley was played by Jakie Cabe. This consummate professional actor got to use his comic timing skills a lot in this play, as nearly every line was a comment on the church, his bosses, his parishioners, or his young student, comical with serious overtones. Whether it was a phone conversation with his secretary, members of his flock, or in the midst of arguments with the young seminary student, Cabe delivered his lines with strength and brevity, letting the text deliver the priest’s message and the laughs. Cabe also allowed his lines to breathe, which gave the audience time to digest the message, then laugh, and then reconsider. This is the real talent of a comedic actor and Cabe was a pleasure to watch.

Cabe didn’t just deliver lines, though. Father Farley goes through a serious personal challenge in his relationship with his student. Beginning as an experienced leader of a congregation he knows well, he is informal, jovial, non-confrontational, and ready to bend under pressure from the more vocal members. But his student’s challenges to his beliefs affects him and he examines his own motivation for being a priest. This changes him. Cabe created clear character choices for Father Farley that showed us this arc from his initial casual attitude about the role of a priest to his deep soul-searching of his reason for existence. In the end, there’s a different Father Farley because Cabe’s whole physical countenance changed. Dolson challenges the priest at every turn and we could see the Father’s frustrated reactions through Cabe’s body and face. It was this constant irritation by Dolson combined with witty remarks about the kid’s arguments that was so funny. Eventually we all need redemption and have to find humility. Cabe’s delivery of a final sermon was powerful and revealing of what Father Farley may have been like in his own seminary days. Dare I say it was Christ-like? And like his young student?

Justin Lemieux was the hot-headed young seminary student and fledgling priest, Mark Dolson. As an SMU MFA student himself, Lemieux may have related to the sentiments of the young Dolson, ready to take on the world, willing to challenge the old guard, and unwilling to compromise principals for the “tact and grace” Father Farley wants Dolson to learn. Lemieux was intense. He always faced Cabe squarely when he talked, intently watching him. His voice had a tension, almost a pleading, for understanding. For the most part his body was straight, unmoving, with feet solidly on the floor. This gave the perspective of Dolson as serious and unyielding. The arc for Dolson is much narrower, but after so many seething challenges against his mentor, in a moment of deep sorrow, Lemieux converted Dolson into the comforting, healing pastor we all crave at times. It was a touching moment that showed Lemieux’s range.

Mass Appeal addresses many of the well-known challenges to the church; women priests, “song and dance theology,” sexual ambivalence and gay priests, alcoholism, and fear of upsetting the parishioners. Yet the message might be about finding the balance. Dolson wants to be a priest because, “I know what (the parishioners) could be.” Father Farley counters with, “But what about what they are?” There was a lot to chew on here, but it was much easier because of the light-hearted approach by Bill C. Davis and Alan Shorter. 

The themes intended by Davis are there for Catholics, and likely all other denominations of church goers as well. But for me, as a theater lover, I felt the weight of a quote by Shorter in his Director’s Notes, a theme I believe is true in all the best productions. “The darkened theatre has become a sanctuary wherein we are given the rare opportunity to focus, a quiet place in which we can examine the heartfelt convictions of two individuals…and ourselves.” With this warm set, Lambert’s wonderful music, and a communion with these two actors, I found myself sitting in the empty theater afterwards, absorbing the experience. That’s the power of theater, and sanctuary.


MASS APPEAL
Circle Theatre, 230 West 4th Street. Fort Worth, Texas 76102
Plays through July 18th

Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 pm.; Saturday Matinees at 3:00 pm.
Tickets for Thursday evening and Matinees are $20-$30.
Tickets for Friday and Saturday evenings are $25-$35.
For information and tickets, visit http://www.circletheatre.com or call 817-877-3040.