Thursday, April 1, 2010

"Vigil": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG 1/2 baub

Morris Panych and Ken McDonald have staged Panych's "Vigil" half a dozen times since its premiere in 1995. The show has resonance for people around the world, for it is the story of a younger person dealing with an aging relative. Born after an experience that the author and scenic designer/husband McDonald experienced when McDonald's mother was dying, the show is grounded in harsh reality. But for all of that, 'Vigil' plays a little like a sit-com, complete with lots of jokes, camp and slapstick.

There are only two characters: Kemp and Grace. Kemp (Marco Barricelli) is a middle aged nebbish of a man who has quit his job and traveled 1,000 miles to care for his dying Aunt. That he has another agenda is obvious -- not only does he hope to be the beneficiary of the Aunt's meager estate, but he is also desperate for affection and acceptance.

As for the bedridden Aunt, played by Olympia Dukakis with only half a dozen lines but an ocean of facial expressions, her game is not revealed until the end.

Well...not the very end, and this is the problem we have with 'Vigil.' On the long side, the twist in Act Two is so delicious, and comes from so far out in left field, that it catches us by complete surprise and we are poised to explode with joy as the play now winds down to the end, dealing with this new information. It certainly will end here.

But it doesn't. The plot twist is only a tool to be used by the author to amplify the point he has been making all night: companionship is the most important thing in the world, no matter who gives it and who gets it.

Barricelli is a very appealing Kemp, and his manipulations in Act One are all humorous and bizarre, as he attempts to hurry the Aunt to her final moments. He plans and rehearses his funeral oration, he asks her opinion on her urn, he even builds a machine which offers her two quick options: electrocution or being hit on the head with a frying pan.

In the end, we realize why Dukakis has kept mum until the last spoken phrase of Act One, but until we get there we are able to enjoy how she reacts, wordlessly, to Kemp's increasing insanity. The crazier he gets and the more he orates about his past, Grace, and we too, come to understand how this poor man has come to feel so isolated.

Lights are everything in 'Vigil.' The stage is weird -- every scene fades in and out with different combinations of Alan Brodie's lighting filtered through newspaper-covered windows. It is very effective, and along with Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe's music help create the atmosphere of a world lived internally, where the only real interaction with the outside world comes from staring out a window. Even the sweater that Grace has been knitting the entire show has nowhere to hang except on a mannequin.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG 1/2 baub

The San Franciso Theater Blog Awards Division awards 'Vigil' Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE and a bauble of despair, but not really a whole bauble, just half a bauble.

One star is for the set/lighting/music. Sets are always interesting at A.C.T. but this one ranks right up there with the best. The second star is for the actors, of course, and the third for Panych's direction. Fast cuts and quick monologues can make a stage play feel like MTV, but not this time. Of course, who knows better than the director when he is the writer as well?

The BANGLE of PRAISE is for that plot twist. Jeez, that was nice.

But the half bauble is for that plot twist too. Once we're there we can't go back to where we were before. Sure, the show is fifteen years old and successful so nobody is going to change anything, but that last twenty minutes or so takes longer than it should.

One more comment: Dukakis has only a few lines, and the two most important are basically inaudible. A little more volume on her, please? Duly noted.

A.C.T. Theatre
415 Geary STreet, San Francisco
Through April 18

1 comment:

HankyGirl said...

A musically well-informed friend, who also saw "Vigil," tells me that the music playing at the end, when Grace is waiting for Kemp, is from Madame Butterfly (Act II, scene I) where Butterfly waits for Pinkerton. He was dismayed to find himself the only one laughing at this clever touch, but I think he may have lost touch with the real world.

Did it seem to you that younger audience members laughed a lot harder than the Boomers did?