Los Angeles Theater Review: VIGIL (Mark Taper Forum)

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by Tony Frankel on November 9, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

SITTING VIGIL FOR THE CENTER THEATRE GROUP, OR LIVING ON BORROWED THEATER

Vigil, which was first done in Canada in 1995, is an oft-produced play, having been translated into 19 languages. At the same time that Malcolm Gets was appearing in an Off-Broadway production in 2009, A.C.T. in San Francisco was planning their 2010 outing, which is the version currently playing at the Mark Taper Forum – same actors, same sets and also directed by the playwright himself, Morris Panych, who happens to be one of the most prodigious directors in Canada.

Vigil at the Mark Taper Forum – written and directed by Morris Panych – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony FrankelLet me just say right off the bat that this is a problematic play with a particularly redundant first act, but its ubiquitous presence can be attributed to three things: first, it has a theatre-of-the-absurd feel with refreshing, quirky, and dark humor that can be uproarious at times; second, those who are willing to return after intermission will be rewarded with one of the greatest plot reveals in theatre history (even if you think you already know what it is), after which the play turns into sort of a love story that ultimately makes a moving, wistful statement about death and the way we attend to our elder population in their final days; lastly, with a one-unit set and only two characters, it’s cheap to produce.

Vigil at the Mark Taper Forum – written and directed by Morris Panych – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony FrankelThe opening is magnificent: we are in an Ionesco-esque universe, some strange sort of skewed attic with yellowed newspaper blocking the view to the anyworld outside. Neither the styles of clothes nor the myriad of artifacts (from a Victrola to a dresser’s dummy) indicate where we are or when this takes place, but the design, along with the Beckettian opening dialogue, almost evoke a postwar France – which makes sense, because this is an absurdist play and both Ionesco and Beckett were expatriates to Paris after the war. (Both scenic and costume design are by Panych’s husband of thirty years, Ken MacDonald.)

Vigil at the Mark Taper Forum – written and directed by Morris Panych – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony FrankelStanding at the doorway is the slovenly-dressed, striking, and heavily built Kemp (Marco Barricelli), who – we will discover – has arrived to care for his dying aunt Grace (Olympia Dukakis) at her behest. The misanthropic, cynical, fractious Kemp has quit a depressing bank job and has no patience for devotional watching, considering Grace hasn’t responded to his letters in 30 years. Soon, the days turn into seasons and Kemp devises ways to speed up Grace’s death, considering everything from a pillow to ant poison mixed in with butterscotch pudding (get it? ant poison?), but my favorite was a hastily-produced killing machine that reminded me of the board game Mousetrap.

Vigil at the Mark Taper Forum – written and directed by Morris Panych – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony FrankelUnfortunately, the device that Panych employs to hasten time is a series of truncated scenes, some in tableau, that begin funny but soon grow wearisome, and because the remarkable Ms. Dukakis rarely speaks (her first line is the last line of Act One), we are left with the tirades of a man who sees life as futile and pointless: he ruminates about a disaffected and dismal childhood, comically commenting on his father the failed magician or his own transgenderism (courtesy of mom’s clothes), all of which have nothing to do with the story at hand.

Vigil at the Mark Taper Forum – written and directed by Morris Panych – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony FrankelOnce the second act reveal happens, generating the longest laugh in recent memory, the scenes grow longer and Panych develops a thought-provoking cogitation on death. We now understand how he has written himself (and his 39 scenes) into a corner, and why Grace has practically no dialogue. We are grateful for the moving ending, but it does not justify the excessive series of short scenes that came before, even if they ended with some of the best exit lines in the business:
– “I’ve drawn up your will. You’ve left everything to me.” [Lights down].
– “I don’t want to talk about anything depressing. (Pause.) Do you want to be cremated?” [Lights down].
– “I’ve been worried about your health lately. You’re looking better.” [Lights down].
– “Why are you putting on makeup? Let the mortician do that.” [Lights down].
These refreshingly cool quips soon became a form of Chinese water torture.

Ms. Dukakis is a self-contained master class of consummate acting, expressing fear, doubt, and happiness with a Chaplinesque beauty, while Mr. Barricelli handles the quick scene and costume changes with an alarming dexterity and commanding presence. (The two previously starred at A.C.T. in another Canadian two-hander, Michel Tremblay’s For The Pleasure Of Seeing Her Again in which she had the majority of the dialogue).

Vigil at the Mark Taper Forum – written and directed by Morris Panych – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony FrankelWishing no ill will toward the Center Theatre Group, one hopes that the popularity of Academy Award-winning Dukakis will bring in patrons, as review and word-of-mouth will be decidedly mixed. Los Angeles seems to be sitting Vigil while our own regional theatre decides to either come back to life by shaking things up (and stop borrowing theater from around the country) or continue towards its imminent artistic demise. If and when that happens, this critic offers a deathbed prayer that Center Theatre Group, once a driving force of original theatre, will rise again, Phoenix-like, from the ashes.

photos by Craig Schwartz

Vigil
Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles
scheduled to end on December 18
for tickets, visit http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.com

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