Off Broadway Theater Review: YOSEMITE (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater)

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by Thomas Antoinne on January 28, 2012

in Theater-New York

THE NATURALIST THING TO DO

In the late 19th century, Naturalism emerged as a viable theatrical style in response to the artifice that had earlier been in vogue.  It was almost inevitable that overly manipulated plots and histrionic acting styles would give way to something more genuine like Naturalism.  Seeing 3-D sets with actual running water, people living in squalor, and characters communicating in everyday speech must have been a thrill to the 19th century theatergoer.  But that was then, and this is now.

Daniel Talbott (playwright, actor, director, and sometimes Rattlestick Playwrights Theater Literary Manager)  has written his new play Yosemite in the style of Naturalism.  In the process, he has created more of a curiosity than an engaging piece of theatre.

Yosemite by Daniel Talbott at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater – directed by Pedro Pascal – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneBecause Naturalism was a response to the well-made play, it’s best to leave all expectations about plot and Aristotelian reversals behind.  One of the rules of Naturalism is that the story occurs around a single event: in the case of Yosemite, the burial of a baby who has died of neglect.  What Talbott has written is not so much a fully realized play as much as a character study of a dysfunctional family trying to (literally) bury a secret and arrive at a place of forgiveness.  Talbott has written his play in three parts: the three angry siblings dig a grave for their dead baby sibling; their mother arrives to attempt an act of forgiveness; and finally, the mother makes a major decision so her children can move forward with their lives.  The characters occur in a bleak, cold world where they are lucky to get hand-me-downs from a church group or blocks of cheese from the government.  Talbott’s naturalistic world echoes the tales of Greek tragedy, William Faulkner, and Sam Shepherd.

The star of this production of Yosemite is, appropriately, the set.  Yosemite takes place deep in the woods beyond the family’s trailer park in the Sierra-Nevada foothills.  Designer Raul Abrego has created a beautiful environment mixing naturalistic trees coated with snow with a backdrop that gives the very limited Rattlestick stage a sense of forest depth.  It’s as if Abrego designed the set to look like an Ansel Adams photo come to life.  It’s so skillfully created that one feels cold just looking at it, and is worthy of Obie consideration.

Yosemite by Daniel Talbott at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater – directed by Pedro Pascal – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneWhile Naturalism offers little to compel today’s audiences story-wise, the actors in this production are given fascinating challenges, and meet them with aplomb.  Seth Numrich’s Jake has the physically and emotionally demanding role of angry grave digging brother, and he meets it head-on.  Numrich balances rage and hope to create a remarkably complex character.  Numrich’s steady rise as one of the most talented young stars in the New York acting community continues here with another impressive performance.  Libby Woodridge has the thankless role of Ruby, the annoying sister, whom she plays annoyingly well.  The second half of the play demands more active listening from Ruby, which Woodridge does skillfully.  The show’s star listener, however, is Noah Galvin as younger brother Jer.  Galvin has the least to do of all the actors, but he grounds the play in his zen-like ability to live in the present, whether it’s echoing an amusing thought or nervously cracking twigs.  He gives us a believable boy who fits perfectly into this world of neglect and missed opportunities.  The other member of the cast is Kathyrn Erbe, known most recently for her television work.  She plays Julie, the grief-stricken, negligent mother trying to get to the other side of her tragedy.  Erbe is a strong actress, and she gives a solid performance as an unstable woman on the edge.  Strangely enough, Erbe’s real-life fame actually works against the play’s Naturalism.  If you’re aware that there is a television star playing Julie, it’s impossible to surrender fully to the naturalistic aspects of her scenes.

Yosemite by Daniel Talbott at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater – directed by Pedro Pascal – Off Broadway Theater Review by Thomas AntoinneDirector Pedro Pascal should be given some of the credit for the actors’ strong performances.  He also works well with his creative design team.  The sound and lights create as credible a remote wooded environment as can be expected within the Rattlestick’s limitations.  Pascal’s least successful collaboration is with the play itself.  Watching the evening progress, there is no sense of directorial orchestration.  The choices and progression feel random, leaving the play’s only true demarcations evidenced by the entrance and exit of the mother.  Unfortunately, Pascal never finds his way into making Talbott’s Naturalism accessible to a contemporary audience.

Which brings up the broader issue: “Why write a naturalistic play and present it in 2012?”  We watch Seth Numrich gamely dig up actual soil and shovel it onto the Rattlestick stage, but every time he hits a rock, I’m taken out of the play, thinking his shovel just hit the bottom of the actual Rattlestick stage.  There’s a reason Naturalism went out of fashion.  Seeing a play with actual colloquial speech or exploring characters who live below the poverty line is neither innovative nor interesting unto itself.  In spite of the uniformly excellent acting and gorgeous set, I found the evening tedious and ultimately uninvolving.  When things happen onstage, they happen at such a slow velocity that the audience is mentally light years ahead of the play.  Talbott never makes his case for this return to pure Naturalism.  If anything, Yosemite might just be the case against it.

I have often been critical of Rattlestick for only producing plays that include excessive drug use. Yosemite, I am happy to report, is a drug-free show.

photos by Sandra Coudert

Yosemite
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
scheduled to end on February 26
for tickets, visit http://www.rattlestick.org

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