nytheatre.com review by Gregg Bellon
August 15, 2004
Sometimes a “period piece” is just about aesthetic: the style of dress, the composure of the characters, or the decadence/dilapidation of the surroundings. Christopher Van Stander’s Terrible Infant takes us back to 1842 Schenectady, New York, to a provincial playhouse that will rid you of the notion that a career in “Theatre” is a glamorous lifestyle. But with this uneven production, Van Stander’s themes and intent get muddled by inconsistencies in the performances, though played on a beautifully designed minimalist set and adorned in eloquent and transformative costumes.
Young Master Henry Brooks (Steven Kaplan) travels the Northeast with his father (Lance Spellerberger), engaged as a guest artist with a prodigious repertoire of Shakespearean leading men, most notably Hamlet and Romeo. The androgynous Henry, who claims to be only 12, is the kind of side-show attraction that increases box office receipts; as the play begins, an impresario named Mr. Duffy (Edwin C. Owens), after some hard-nosed negotiating with Papa Brooks and a supposedly revelatory audition by Henry, agrees to “engage” young Master Brooks at $60 per performance.
Duffy’s playhouse employs a repertory anchored by the alluring ingenue Emma Downs (Melissa Schneider), who is naturally given some of the juiciest moments, embodying a freedom and abandon that threatens the old guard paternalism of Duffy and the elder Brooks. The fulcrum of the play occurs when Emma, in a flourish of actorly agility gets Brooks to leave her alone with Henry for an introductory rehearsal, wherein she plans to reveal and expose his ruse. The scene between these two young, yet wise and weathered, characters speaks to the truth of a common understanding that leads to almost conspiratorial communion.
The central focus of Van Stander’s treatise (that I realized only after reading a long dramaturgical explanation in the program later) seems to be the early labor movement that led to Child-Labor Laws protecting the real victims of capitalism and its bottom-line mentality. Emma and Henry are poster-children for the cause, but what I observed on-stage dealt more with pedophilia and paternalistic coercion than with social reform.
The adults outperform the younger actors, with Spellerberger’s Brooks the embodiment of cold villainous classicism and Owens’ Duffy a masterful conglomerate of Shakespearean fools and clowns, the consummate Player King. If director Mahayana Landowne’s point here is to suggest that the old guard would be vanquished by the passion of youth, the youth it seems are not well-equipped to take on the responsibility.
Credit is due to Ai Hayatsu for her representational, easily-morphed set, especially the muslin scrim that allows for the backlighting of actors while offstage to create wonderful silhouettes and expand the playing space layers; and to Oana Botez Ban for her exquisite costume design, articulating the narrative with accessorized touches such as a corset for Henry and extremely oversized sleeves for Duffy’s silk shirt. The aesthetic is the message, though, because at the play’s climax the sound effect of a rioting crowd offstage drowns out the dialogue of the four characters finally confronting their realities after Henry’s dramatic performance.