Theater: Open season

‘Landless’ and ‘Impressionism’ two of the first plays to hit Marin’s 2015 scene

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Tom Reilly as Thomas Buckle and Mary Ann Rodgers as Katharine Keenan in Ross Valley Players' 'Impressionism.'

by Charles Brousse

Although for many who work in live theater the December holidays are a welcome respite, one group doesn’t share this luxury. These unfortunates have an early January opening to get ready for, forcing them to juggle family, friends and rehearsals as best they can. Here’s a quick rundown on Marin’s first 2015 arrivals.

Landless (AlterTheater): Since the title and much of the content of Larissa FastHorse’s new play is about various kinds of homelessness, it’s more than appropriate that it should have been commissioned, developed and given its world premiere by San Rafael’s AlterTheater, a company that beats the high cost of owning or renting a performance space by utilizing temporarily vacant Fourth Street storefronts.

Based on interviews that FastHorse conducted with neighboring merchants, Landless opens with a folksy monologue by a fictional local businesswoman named Natalie (Emilie Talbot),  in which the area’s characteristics are described in terms that recall the stage manager’s resonant verbal portrait of Grover’s Corners in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Curiously, though, the narrative device that Wilder used so effectively to tie everything together is immediately abandoned and the task is left to the play’s central characters, shop owner Elise (Patricia Silver) and her unofficially adopted son and partner, Josiah (Nick Garcia), to tell their story through a series of flashbacks.

Decades earlier, Elise inherited a family-owned general merchandise store. Soon thereafter, Josiah, then a young boy who claimed to be of Native American descent, wandered in saying he was trying to escape his domineering father (versatile Michael J. Asberry in one of several roles). She helped him out and they have worked together ever since. Unfortunately, a combination of declining business and pressure to pay off an ill-advised loan is now forcing her to close down. As the auction of unsold goods draws near, these glimpses into the past reveal the issues that have alternately united and divided them both personally and with their respective communities over the years.

It’s a truly formidable list. In addition to joint financial woes, Josiah has racism and problems with his tribal membership and homosexuality to deal with. Elise’s promotion of a downtown homeless shelter and ambivalence toward projects like a Walmart and an Indian casino raise the hackles of fellow merchants and she becomes increasingly frustrated by being stuck in a glass-windowed “prison” (the shop) of her own making. Given FastHorse’s demonstrated ability to write realistic dialogue, one or two of these conflicts could have been the basis of a compelling story. Lumped together, they create a confusion of overlapping themes, accompanied by abrupt shifts in time and characters that are never satisfactorily resolved by co-directors Jeanette Harrison and Ann Brebner (assisted by dramaturg Duca Knezevic).

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Impressionism (Ross Valley Players): You have to wonder how a theater that in recent years has displayed pretty good judgment in their play selections would suddenly opt for three weak scripts in a row. First came Ken Ludwig’s sophomoric Fox on the Fairway, then a tedious stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion, and now there is Impressionism, which gussies up a cliched love story (after many trials, two lonely souls eventually end up sitting happily together on a park bench after discovering there is more to life than work) with comparisons to the great early 20th century impressionist painters who discovered that there is more to people, objects and the world in general than what can be seen up close.

Playwright Michael Jacobs, whose background is mainly in family television, offers his pseudo profundities with disturbing nonchalance, leaving director Billie Cox and actors Mary Ann Rodgers (the gallery owner) and Tom Reilly (the photo journalist)—assisted by a hard-working ensemble—with the daunting challenge of making them go down smoothly. When Impressionism had a brief New York run in 2011, almost all the reviews were negative. RVP should have been warned.

Charles can be reached at [email protected]  

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