nytheatre.com review by Pamela Butler
May 22, 2008
May 22 was opening night of The Site, by Al Schnupp, now playing at Walkerspace. Entering the theater, I faced the stairs to a freshly constructed catwalk bracketing the audience side of the stage, and my catbird seat overlooked the set.
On stage, there is the suggestion of a research campsite in the desert, with a little paneled camper off to one side, compact and quaint, the inside lit to look warm and cozy. It has cubbies on its façade that conveniently open up to create little work spaces. There's a makeshift dining area and a large tent, pale ivory drop cloths cover the floor, suggesting sand or hard pack. The desk, the computer, the tools, and the ladder leading into a pit at the back of the stage place us at an excavation site.
What are we excavating? On the surface, it's frogs. A very specific kind of deep burrowing frog that can actually freeze and thaw and live to be found by a famous scientist, Dr. Harold Roth.
Faith Roth appears first, from the camper, charmingly draped in colorful skirts, fancifully gathered to immediately imply a bird or butterfly. She is a formerly famous poet, wife of Dr. Roth, head man at this site, and she has gone a little funny in the head. Rebecca Lingafelter is delightful as this flighty and confused woman, but she is a little young to be the good doctor's long-time wife. The character of Faith has gone through quite a lot as we find out, difficult complexities and layers of experience that a young actress will inevitably have trouble understanding. The reasons for Faith's distracted and abnormal behavior are revealed near the end of the play, but getting from here to there is a slightly bewildering ride.
Faith flits about in a childlike way, lost in her own mind and the poetry she loves, chirruping an ongoing monologue of poem snippets, observations, and warnings. She prepares a real breakfast, cooking scrambled eggs in a large pot and making steaming coffee. She sets the table, a mock place for each of her favorite poets, the company she seems to prefer.
As she cooks and fusses, Dr. Harold Roth bellows from the pit, asking if his help is out of bed, until he finally emerges, dressed as the quintessence of a research scientist in the desert. Played by Marty Brown, he is eccentric, craggy, and endearing enough make it clear why Sherry, his personal assistant, doggedly stays with him. Sarah Claspell, again too young for the role of a long-time personal assistant, does her best to be the seasoned devotee who has essentially raised the doctor's son, Matt.
Dr. Roth is world renowned, an itinerant digger of artifacts. He has a permanent home but never lives there and his son, Matt, sweet and sympathetic in the hands of Ian Merrigan (who looks to be about the same age as both his mothers), on this occasion has come to get permission from Dad to sell the place, so he and his girlfriend Amy can start a business or do something, which Dad won't hear of. Jenny Seastone Stern as Amy, gives us a city girl of the right age with street smarts and no airs. She's bored and wants to buy a TV because there's nothing else to do.
Also working on the dig is Edward Brandon III, whom actor Bobby Hodgson portrays well as a classic geeky grad student and the doctor's field assistant.
They are digging for deeply buried frogs that are able to freeze and yet miraculously thaw out alive, an ability some people are extremely interested in.
As the day unfolds and they are ready to dig, Sherry gets a fax from a Ruth Meyers, whom no one seems to know, who sounds suspicious and who is coming to visit. Suddenly out of nowhere, Ruth (Aimee Phelan-Deconinck) strides onto the scene, in black patent open-toed high heels that are dangerous on drop cloths, and probably sand. She has deadly long legs, a short, tight black skirt, designer jacket and a great clasp of diamonds on her wrist. Phelan-Deconinck has her number. She's tough, confident, and clearly has a mission. Who is she? Why is she here? What does she want?
While we do find out all these things in a stream of clever banter, sudden revelations, asides, poetry, and accusations, there is a lot going on all at once too much of the time for my taste. I had the feeling I was seeing something still in a chrysalis stage, an ambitious undertaking to bring large elements together—art, science, the hard world—to excavate some truths. A truth is revealed, maybe several, but they seemed almost incidental to the action itself.
It isn't clear how much director Mark Sitko could do to dig out and make whole what seem like such highly symbolic events and people, the layers and layers of them, but it didn't work for me. The accompanying press release and the program helped me get a little clearer idea of what the play was about, which is not a good sign.
I found myself wondering how it would be as a novel or short story, partly because several times I wanted to be able to go back and hear some things again since I didn't quite catch the whole of what was going on. There seemed to be too much going on, not enough of which was key to the main drama.
The actors do a fine job of bringing these characters to life, the costumes by Antonia Ford-Roberts create the sense of the extremely different personalities, the set design by Paul Alexander has the right feel and flow for the action, the lighting by Kell Condon enhances the desert scene, and original music by Mark Valadez seems right for the play's mood.
I'd be curious to see another incarnation of the play, leaner and more focused.