Chico State’s Court Theatre offers strong production of Stage Fright
Reviewing the second entry in Chico State’s 2003 Court Theatre season, a production of David Manowitz’s comic thriller Stage Fright,is problematic in more than a few ways.
First of all, to lay down more than ambiguous brushstrokes about the details of the plot would be a disservice to the audience. Suffice it to say that the scenario involves a particularly loathsome theater critic of note who finds himself bound to a throne deep in the bowels of an recently rediscovered theater, his past critical vivisections returning to hang like the Sword of Damocles over his head, while an actor who is seriously unhappy about past notices seems just a hair away from shutting down the guy’s production. Permanently.
Manowitz takes this opportunity to wax both philosophical and satiric about the nature of theater and the symbiotic and yet mutually antagonistic relationship between the critic and the artists of a production, front and center the actors. Although the focus here is on the venal, predatory and preening nature of critics and their seeming intent to divert the limelight from the actors and refocus it upon themselves through the godlike power of their printed “insights” (heh heh …), nobody escapes unscathed here, not even the audience.
Manowitz is a leading critic, playwright and director with an international reputation. As a prodigious writer of stage theory, history and technique, his insights are both amusing and, at times, enlightening to anyone who has ever tread the boards … or critiqued that effort.
Unfortunately, Manowitz occasionally digresses into polemic, as dialogue tapers off into monologues that could seemingly have been cut wholesale from one of his essays, and the momentum slows. Fortunately, this tendency is infrequent and is offset by incisive exchanges, unexpected narrative acrobatics, and broadly-played forays into scenes clipped from the classic works of Shakespeare and Ibsen. It is these examples of scenery-chewing “Acting!” that illuminate the acknowledgement that, while a critic may not be the most desirable of beasts, he or she may also serve a legitimate purpose.
This production of Stage Fright is well worth recommending, although it is unfortunate that the last few days of its run fall on the Fourth of July weekend. The cast is obviously having a field day with the material. As the insufferable critic, Joe Menente rises to the challenge of the seeming restriction of acting while bound from the shoulders up through most of the production.
The choice role here is the critic’s nemesis, and Court Theatre first-timer Denise R. Burbach takes the character’s every turn with poise and aplomb. And, although seemingly just a foil, Chico State theater vet Rich Matli still looks to be having fun with his role, especially while emoting through a scene from a “reinterpretation” of Hedda Gabler.
The set is well-designed and realized, an eye-pleasing yet disquieting melding of the conventional and the implied. Especially appreciated here were choices made with lighting (which adds to the palette of the set, at times evoking an almost Grand Guignol-like atmosphere) and sound. Director Joel P. Rogers gets extra props by having the audacity to use actual blanks (warning: they are loud, but the effect adds to the uneasiness of the situation).
If there is any downside to this production, it is through no fault of the talent, but due to the nature of the theater. It’s set in the round, so I would suggest arriving early and analyzing the layout of the set to score the most attractive vantage point. Otherwise you’ll have stretches staring at the backs of actors’ heads.