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Dude, that's Wyrd: The Rice Players take to the stage with their latest production



By Timothy Faust     2/5/09 6:00pm

Somewhere deep within the Rice Players' production of Wyrd Sisters, an entertaining and fast-paced show is struggling to break free.Unfortunately, its struggle is ill-fated. Trapped by static, repetitive staging and questionable direction by Brown College senior Thomas Mings, the performance constantly trips over itself and never manages to find a steady rhythm. The result is a haphazard, arduous test of audience endurance that generates more awkwardness than applause.

The play, based on Terry Pratchett's novel from the Discworld series and adapted for the stage by Stephen Briggs, rests upon a web of light-hearted fantasy threaded with wit and charm. Largely a parody of Macbeth, the story offers a raucous romp through a storyline well-trodden by readers of Shakespeare or Tolkien.

Not all is well in the land of Lancre. There, the foul, ruthless Duke Felmet (Lovett College junior Viren Desai) and his domineering wife (Hanszen College senior Emily Fortuna) have murdered old King Verence (John Marsh, Smalley Institute staff) and claimed the throne for their own sinister purposes. Three haggish witches, the Wyrd Sisters themselves, discover Verence's orphaned son and place him in the care of a troupe of traveling performers - all in the first fifteen minutes. The Wyrd Sisters script is meant to be a hilarious, razor-sharp adventure - but in Hamman Hall its jovial, crisp clarion call turns into a muffled dirge.

That Wyrd Sisters fails to live up to its potential is a surprise, because the Players seem to have all the basic components necessary for a decent performance. The script is snappy and entertaining, the actors have a wide range of backgrounds and experience and the technical crew is proficient and practiced. But for some reason, the pieces just don't fit together.

The actors of Wyrd Sisters do an admirable job of tackling a script so chock-full of punny wordplay and fast-paced dialogue, but the entire cast could use a burst of energy to propel them to the final curtain. Too often throughout the show, the audience is treated to what feels more like a guided reading than an actual performance - as if the actors are waiting for their turns to recite their memorized dialogue instead of reacting to what's happening around them and contributing to a real conversation.

The acting of Wyrd Sisters suffers from a general absence of reflection, gesture or pause, and the resulting presentation is dry. Few characters seem to genuinely care about their surroundings, and their interactions feel forced and stale.

There are exceptions to this observation, and their contributions to the show are tremendously welcome. As Duke Felmet grows more and more neurotic and paranoid over the course of the show, a lock-kneed Desai shakes and stammers his way across the stage like a manic-depressive toy soldier. Fortuna, his crueler counterpart, is a less sputtery but equally enjoyable presence. The two don't need to connect on a very deep level (and they don't) but their rapport is among the show's high points.

Nobody steals the show until Act II, when Jones College freshman Michael Paras appears as playwright Hwel. Paras doesn't have many lines, but the audience is thankful for the few he has. Paras tackles his role with genuine enthusiasm and unique physicality, and every scene in which he is featured benefits from his performance. Paras, with Desai and Fortuna, provides welcome relief from the passivity of many of the other performances.

The Wyrd Sisters themselves offer a mixed performance, but never develop their characters beyond a basic interchangeability. Hanszen sophomore Anastasia Alex, as Granny Weatherwax, is enthusiastic and delivers her lines fluidly. Baker senior Caitlin Rexses puts forth an honest effort as the ever-prudent Nanny Ogg, while Baker senior Jasmine Bright, as the coquettish Magrat Garlick, meanders into a relationship with the royal fool (Brown sophomore Travis O'Rear) that has, frankly, as much chemistry as my academic transcript.

There is one fatal flaw that undercuts every performance in the Players' production of Wyrd Sisters: dialect. The show features a variety of north-country British accents, and every actor in the production tries to adopt one. Few of them can pull it off. The result is a barely-enunciated mess that renders lengthy strings of dialogue essentially unintelligible - and for whatever reason, Mings has chosen not to equip his actors with microphones when they have difficulty projecting even three rows into the audience. The performers drop vowels and consonants left and right, meaning the performance drops significant plot points willy-nilly - the audience is lost in an oceanic verbal mush.

The technical side of Wyrd Sisters is pleasantly neutral. Visiting designer Daniel Perezvertti has created a simple and fairly elegant wide-angled, two-level set, which is pleasing and, in the Rice style, minimalist. But it doesn't really help the production establish its varied settings. Will Rice College junior Michael Rog's lighting design offers gorgeous swirling backgrounds but has difficulty illuminating the faces of taller characters when they stand atop the set's highest point, and Hanszen junior Teresa Bayer's costuming runs the gamut from plain to dazzling. Desai's vibrant blood-red costume is the sort of splendid piece that shifty-eyed actors and techies, if they're shrewd, will try to steal after the final curtain call.

In terms of individual performances and backstage or booth efforts, Wyrd Sisters is fairly inoffensive. Unfortunately, there are two fundamental problems that condemn Wyrd Sisters to the bottom of this year's campus theater docket: blocking and scene transitions.

One can only imagine what a blocking rehearsal for Wyrd Sisters might look like: Stand in a straight line with the rest of the actors on stage. Wait until it's time for your line. Keep waiting! Almost here! Now, say your line! Stand perfectly still until it's time for your next line. Maybe you should look downstage or at whoever's talking while your line gets closer and closer. Doesn't matter. Say your line. Move over here until the end of the line. Stand, either completely frozen or constantly shifting your weight from foot to foot, until you get another line. Stand still again. Move over here. Copy, paste, repeat for the next 140 minutes.

But the single biggest shortcoming of Wyrd Sisters is one that can't be seen: the scene transitions. They are complete blackouts that last anywhere between eight seconds (which in a play is a long time to sit in the dark) and a minute (which is downright torturous). There is no adequate explanation for these transitions. The stage isn't transformed into an elaborate castle, or a forest, or the metal and steam antechamber of The Wizard of Oz. There is no elaborate prop manipulation, there are no big set pieces and there are few costume changes. The only things that move during these transitions are the characters - except for the witches' cauldron, which occasionally appears or disappears.

Lengthy transitions are a guaranteed deathblow to any production. Without exception, they shatter the pacing of a play. While most plays contain between two and six scenes, Wyrd Sisters has a staggering 23. This means that the audience gets to sit through 21 pitch black scene changes and an intermission while, in a perfectly sadistic move, the speakers blare repetitive snippets of fluffy fantasy-adventure music. The whole experience is eerily akin to being trapped in an animated movie's DVD menu.

These are the kinds of mistakes we expect from high school one-acts and terrified novice directors. But Mings, director of last spring's I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, has worked in several shows at Rice over his career. Hopefully his next show will better represent that experience.

"I'm waiting," comments Desai's Duke early in the play. "Make me laugh." You and me both, buddy.

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