Monday, April 18, 2016

Old Man

Charlene Baldridge
Photo by Ken Howard
Of Typeface and the River


I don’t know where they found it (possibly through a layout artiste), but several arts organizations have discovered a typeface that I call Victoriana Obfuscata, and it is appearing in more and more programs, confounding those who wish to read comments, lists of names, and other information. Quite simply, the device to add atmosphere or “tone” makes content indecipherable, a frustration and barricade to those who would read. Puh-leez.

That Old Man River

Two current San Diego area productions concern rafting or being swept along on the Mississippi River. Both are worth a look.

The first is a musical titled Big River, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, continuing at New Village Arts through 15. This rafting is benign, though full of adventure.

Way Down River

The company
Photos by Aaron Rumley
The second, Way Downriver; William Faulkner’s ‘Old Man,’ continues at North Coast Repertory Theatre through May 8. This rafting takes place under the duress of the great flood of 1927. More perilous, it, too, is full of adventure and based on Faulkner’s Old Man, adapted by Edward Morgan and directed by David Ellenstein.

Though a bit bloated, the Morgan adaptation of Faulkner’s work is splendidly cast, impeccably acted, and wonderfully constructed, with scenes that alternate from a cell at Parchman State Penal Farm, where the story is being told, to the enactment of the adventure itself, which involves a prisoner named Aikins (Richard Baird) and Ellie (Sara Fetgatter), the woman he is sent to rescue from a nearby cotton mill rooftop. After being issued a rowboat and an oar, the instructions are simple: “just follow the tops of the telephone poles to the cotton mill.” The River has other ideas.

A more waterlogged and bedraggled pair cannot be imagined – Aikins’ prison stripes so muddied that his status is not discernable, and Ellie so ragged and great with child that she is a most pitiable creature. Aikins’ immediate concern once she is in the rowboat is where to find a bit of dry land where she can deliver her child. Fueled by the perils that rise over a number of weeks, a deep, unspoken bond of love is forged before it is sundered by Aikins’ deep sense of the right thing to do once Ellie and the baby’s safety are assured.

To watch Baird enact the subtle change in this basically good, though previously uncompassionate man is truly wondrous, indicated in one instance by a tear that arises in a corner his eye.

Fetgatter’s Ellie is an example of extreme stillness of acting style. No matter what befalls her character, the actor never “emotes” as lesser actors would. Less is more makes for a great love affair and underscores the play’s denouement as all the more cruel and unjust.

Baird and Fetgatter
Photo by Aaron Rumley

Veteran actor Robert Grossman undergirds the play’s two-hour unfolding with a terrific period guitar score, which he composed, arranged and plays beautifully. He portrays Ike, one of Aiken’s two cellmates. Benjamin Cole effectively limns the other, Tommy, a callow, yet appealing youth who savors the adventure. The inimitable Geno Carr almost steals the show in one of his numerous roles, a Cajun who shelters and feeds Aikins and Ellie for a while, teaching the innately skillful Aikins to wrestle, capture and kill ‘gators.

Others who play numerous roles are Max Macke and John Herzog. An extreme departure from the norm, Marty Burnett’s scenic design is absolutely wondrous. Additional designers are Matt Novotny (lights), Alina Bokovikova (costumes), Melanie Chen (sound), Andrea Gutierrez (props), and Aaron Rumley (projections). Kudos to Artistic Director David Ellenstein for his keen casting and astute direction.

North Coast Repertory, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach, or 858-481-1055

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