High-quality, powerful student productions at the Frosts

by Hank Leukart | 5/18/01 5:00am

While the winning scripts for the Eleanor Frost Playwriting Festival have been uneven in the past, this year's collection -- "Josephine's Last Rites" by Benjamin Mills '03, "Youth N Asia" by Andrew Chu '01 and "Artemisia's Muse" by Sabrina Peric '03 -- are all consistent, high-quality one-acts with remarkable quality, especially for undergraduate work. In addition to the insightful scripts, the plays' productions are also top-notch, resulting in a refreshing evening of live theater that clocks in at just over two hours.

The festival's first two plays have strikingly similar themes and deal with the strained ties in families forced to mature after the loss of a mother. The festival begins with "Josephine's Last Rites," a "Death of a Salesman"-esque piece about the deterioration of an elderly father's life suffering a deep depression after losing his wife to an illness. The play begins with the father, Stu (played by Cliff Campbell '04) sitting in his apartment: a bright white, minimalist set, well designed by Carl Choquette.

This play revolves around Campbell '04, as his performance stands out as the best of the entire night. His portrayal of a man in denial about his life and son is strong and intense. He plays the part with the volatility of an electric fence -- he simply waits until someone tries to touch or make contact with him and then he explodes with vicious and frightening electric sparks. He paces around the room with an unnerving mood that teeters on the edge of insanity. Campbell's impressive range, however, is also evident during moments of tenderness during an especially poignant scene where he reminisces about a boat trip and another where he laughs about his apartment's lumpy couch.

Sarah Strokes '03 (who plays the ghost of Stu's wife, Jo) and Henry Gummer '02 (playing Stu's son, Tom) also deserve commendation for convincing presentations. Strokes's light-heartedness serves as a perfect foil to Campbell's unpredictability, and Gummer's preppy, educated rendition of an old man's young son also complements Campbell well. John Lee '02 directed this play deliberately, with a number of moments of creativity (watch the constant packing and unpacking of the boxes). These things, combined with an obviously personal script by Mills that touches on the pain of a maturing family results in a poignant and well thought-out production.

Chu wrote the festival's second play, "Youth N Asia," as a tribute to his grandfather, who (he writes in the playbill) "even after all the suffering he has experienced in his lifetime still savors a beautiful sunrise and comments on his good fortune." This is another personal script that deals with family issues but does so in a somewhat lighter fashion.

Eric Liu '04 plays Haden, a young Asian youth who becomes angry when his grandfather, Gung (played by Rich Park '01), visits from overseas. The already tense relationship between Haden and his father, Tech (Gerald Lam '01), breaks down completely when Tech continues to lie to Gung about his son's accomplishments. Tech so desperately wants his lies -- that Haden attends Princeton and plans to be a doctor -- to be true.

To Chu's credit, the script for "Youth N Asia" is especially clever, due to his interesting exploration of family language barriers. Grandfather Gung speaks only Chinese, and Haden speaks only English, forcing Tech to serve as a selective interpreter between them (for example, when Haden jokes he that he wants to be a gynecologist, Tech tells Gung that Haden wants to be a pediatrician). Of course, the audience hears everything in English, creating a stretch of dramatic irony that lasts throughout the play.

This language barrier conceit is especially poignant during a scene involving Haden and Gung as they explain the value of pizza and Chinese herbal tea to each other, respectively. The script's power becomes obvious when it becomes apparent that Haden somehow communicates better with his Chinese-speaking grandfather than with his English-speaking father. Also ingenious are the fantasy sequences involving Gung's death by heart attack.

Both Lam and Park do an excellent job of portraying their characters, and Park's especially impressive reserved nature enforces his character's classic-style personality that values patience and hard work. It's obvious that Liu is younger than the other two, as his delivery of lines (especially those that involve cursing) seem somewhat stilted, especially at the beginning. Still, the abrasiveness of his character comes across well, and he certainly manages to create a bipolar relationship between Haden and his grandfather.

Jesse Singer's directing and Carl Choquette's set design stand out, and subtle movements and set pieces (such as the cereal box with "The American Dream" on the back) are much appreciated by the audience.

The festival's final play, "Artemisia's Muse," is completely unlike the first two and is conspicuous as the most intense production of the night. The unique play tells the story of Artemisia Gentileschi, a female Italian painter born in 1593 who closely followed the revolutionary Baroque painter Caravaggio. Landscape painter Agostino Tassi befriended Artemisia but eventually raped her and was sent to trial by her father, during which Artemisia was forced to give evidence under torture.

Peric, who is also a member of The Dartmouth Staff, intelligently divides Artemisia into three personalities, each viewing and portraying the events of her life differently.

Artemisia 1, played by Kristina Klebe '01, seems to see her art and her relationship with Tassi sensually, and challenges the view that Tassi raped Artemisia. Instead, this version of Artemisia enjoys her erotic sexual romps with Tassi, as evidenced by Klebe's writhing with her back arched on the stage. Klebe once again displays her impressive and convincing acting talent as she portrays Artemisia as a provocative, sexual being and manages to at least match the sexual prowess she displayed in last term's "Sheep's Milk On the Boil."

Artemeisia 2, played by Rachel Globus '02, shows a neurotic, insane side of Artemesia, as she spouts lines like, "What of the artist when there is too much art in her?" Her performance is so good that it's somewhat disturbing as she shakes and shivers her way around the stage. The third Artemesia (Katia Asche '04), who seems to show a more childish and business-like side to the painter, also turns in a fascinating performance. While she seems a bit timid in the beginning, by the end of her screamed monologue, she is hard to miss.

Kris Thorgeirrson '02 deserves to be commended for his creative and orderly direction of this play. The mirrored painting and drawing sequences are especially intriguing. Finally, kudos go to the unnerving violin playing of Joel Schudson '02 that manages to keep the audience on the edge of its seats throughout the production.

The Eleanor Frost Playwriting Festivals will appear in the Bentley Theater tonight and tomorrow night at 8 p.m. The festival was established in 1950 by a gift from Eleanor Louise Frost; winning undergraduate playwrights receive cash awards and the drama department produces their plays during Spring term.