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The Dartmouth
June 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

You're sure to get caught up in 'Caught in the Act'

In the Drama Department's mainstage production "Caught in the Act," Thornton Wilder's "Infancy" and Anton Chekhov's "The Marriage Proposal" both address the theme of "babies acting like growed-ups; growed-ups acting like babies." At times uproarious, at times tedious, the two comic one-act plays take an irreverent look at the conventions of adulthood, offering strong performances by some of Dartmouth's finest thespian talent.

In "Infancy," the first one-act, babies are geniuses. Tommy and Moe, two babies played expertly by Karl Polifka '01 and Kris Thorgeirsson '02, respectively, meet in Central Park during their mommies' lunchtime. Evidently, babies are geniuses because their ability to retain information is phenomenal and their hunger for learning insatiable. They sleep much of the time because their brains are so active; thus whenever their mothers want Tommie or Moe to stop crying, they recite the alphabet, or the burroughs of New York, or the multiplication tables, any of which inevitably sedates them.

Awake, the babies lament their plight as little people in clear English, complaining that "people aren't serious about" them, yelling about how they are treated unfairly and disrespected by grown-ups. Moe is the more vocal of the two, and Thorgeissen delivers his humorous self-pitying diatribes with great comic timing and intensity. Tommy is equally hysterical, as Polifka sports a full goatee while he artfully whines like a seven-month-old phonics devotee.

Alexis McGuinness '03 is fantastic as Tommy's mother, Millie. Her caricature of a petty housewife stuffing cream-puffs down her throat is tremendously funny in its physical grotesquerie. She captures brilliantly the sense of cartoon extravagance that the colorful set-design of Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili and the text of the play itself suggest. Her absurd candy-gorging exchanges with Moe's mother, played by Alex Morris '02, poignantly reveal the up-ended dynamic of "growed-ups acting like babies."

Central Park is the police beat of Officer T.T. Avonzino, the parody of a typical New York cop, played with wonderful physicality by Jeffrey Withers '02. As he bounds around the stage in bowl-legged strides, smacking his patrolman's notebook with expletives like "Crazy!" in an exaggerated Italian accent, Mr. Withers once again demonstrates his aptitude for humour.

The satirical view of a biologically accepted premise (babies' brains work harder than older peoples') is clever, and the caricatured bigness of the acting set against the whimsical cartoonesque design of Alexi-Meskhishvili makes the show entertaining. But it is, as comic satire can often be, one-dimensional. It is light and amusing to watch babies criticize the meaningless conventions that grown-ups indulge in, but the joke grows old rather quickly and soon loses the initial bite of its humor, relying upon the physical affectations of the actors to retain the audience's attention. The play does not take risks.

Chekhov's farce "The Marriage Proposal," however, does risk the bounds of a one-dimensional comedy. Though textually a shorter play than "Infancy," its stage time is longer. Gary Cherniakhovsky, a Drama professor visiting from Russia, injects songs, dances and even characters into his production that do not exist in the original script.

The story is simple: a man named Ivan Vasilyevich Lomov (also played by Thorgeissen) calls on a woman named Natalya Stapanovna (Lisa Bianchi '00) to propose marriage to her. But before he utters the first word of a proposal, they begin arguing over the meadows that lie on the border between their land. The argument escalates, but the proposal is ultimately agreed upon.

Cherniakhovsky's show leads the audience through a heightened farcical landscape plagued by self-absorbed, ridiculous characters. Played adeptly by Thorgeissen, Lomov is a self-pitying hypochondriac in whom metaphysical circumstance invariably produces fatal physical ailments. He plummets further and further into despair and self-pity as the play progresses. The actor portrays Lomov's self-inflicted suffering with remarkable conviction; for the last half of the play the audience is forever awaiting his physical collapse.

Natalya's father, Stepan Stepanovich, played by Henry Gummer '02, is an equally absurd character who stubbornly insists on using exaggerated social graces but stumbles over them, beginning lines with "My good man!" and ending them with "et cetera, et cetera." Like her father, Natalya is also stubborn, and Lisa Bianchi demonstrates her flighty argumentativeness with precision and humor. A raunchy playfulness comes through in her performance that serves as a counterpoint to Lomov's neurotic hypochondria.

"The Marriage Proposal" is a whirlwind of color and activity. Its characters occasionally break into Russian song and dance, fall into wells, ask the audience questions and bring one of them halfway on stage. It is irreverent, chaotic and unabashedly farcical, uprooting the social conventions (marriage, polite gesture, etc.) that thinly veil the baby in every "grown-up."

The plays are vaudevillian, and the productions heighten their goofiness. For instance, before each work, a short funny black-and-white silent film is projected onto a screen, prefacing the action.

Such is the nature of "Caugh in the Act." The shows are filled with impertinent and outlandish moments, audience involvement, "laugh-for-laugh's-sake" mentality. At the end of each play the projection screen is drawn once more and an entirely contrived production credit is scrolled, another absurd and laughable touch.

The plays of "Caught in the Act" catch people in the acts of everyday life, upturning what we view as normal to portray it in a ridiculous fashion.

"Caught in the Act" plays tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. in Moore Theater.