By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
You must call it curious that the nontraditional holiday meal of Charles Dickens served by Kitchen Dog Theater is called Act of Passion. They didn't christen it so, of course. Playwright John Tyson, currently a company member at Houston's Alley Theatre, chose to plunge through the great Victorian moralist's surface sheen of playful eccentricity and spear the core of desperation and addiction inside the unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He purports not just to spike Dickens' creamy, spicy nog, but to switch the bowl altogether: The homicidal jealousy of a sexually repressed uncle toward his nephew is served to us straight up. But for all the talk about getting to the fat black heart of Dickens' febrile love rendered in provincial circumstances, Kitchen Dog and director Tim Johnson have given us something neither "Dickensian" (a blessed failure, at this time of year) nor passionate (which ought to make them liable for prosecution under some truth-in-advertising statute).
Act of Passion showcases a lot of chest-heaving lust and brow-arched scheming and even underground church catacombs where the discovery of a single gold ring means a life and a death transformed. Unfortunately, director Johnson has coaxed his attractive if undynamic cast to walk and run through their paces with the flat, silvery black, apparently unmotivated urgency of Charlotte Bront serialized into silent shorts: They seem to be gesturing Gothic anguish through some objectively imposed barrier. On opening night, at least, they were constrained by playwright Tyson's précis approach to character motivation; their actions don't seem to arise from an escalating sense of dangerous emotion. Instead, they feel dictated, charted, and graphed until the performances hit all their cues but are diminished to straight lines rising and falling between black dots. One assumes Tyson intended to radicalize Dickens by sucking out his cellulose lushness, but what remains is a perfunctory, tin-toy quality to the characters. What's left is tepid melodrama--complete with a beginning and an end inside an opium den, anemically yet distractingly outfitted with giant, pale Asian nature scrolls by scenic designer Elizabeth Mead; their lavender prettiness helps to dilute the displayed obsessions and sorrows even more.
Kitchen Dog artistic director Dan Day stars as Jasper, a music instructor in a small English town with a lecherous yen for his voice student Rosa (Kristin Wolanin). She is engaged to Jasper's nephew "Ned," or Edwin Drood (Tee Quillin). Drood loves to wax subservient to the golden-locked Rosa, mostly while she sits in the far upper stage-right corner as the subject of a beatific if banal painting; Rosa is the one who eventually convinces him that their preordained nuptials will be a mistake. Meanwhile, a local minister named Crisparkle (David Garver) takes in an orphaned sister and brother, the coldly intelligent Helena (Kelley MacRae) and her volatile brother Neville (William Caleo). Jasper uses class envy to pit Edwin against Neville at the same time as he decays into a raging stalker who blackmails Rosa lest she deny him her love.
There's nary an unpolished performance in Kitchen Dog's Act of Passion, but you do sense that three of the central actors--Wolanin as the pursued Rosa, Quillin as Drood, and Caleo as Neville--qualify more as "promising youngsters" than as formidable players. There may be a reason--all are pursuing theater degrees at Southern Methodist University, Kitchen Dog's wellspring. Their callowness, though mitigated by obvious ability, depletes some very adult situations.
Likewise, lead actor Dan Day is a full-time professor of acting at SMU. As Jasper, Day delivers his too frequent minimum accomplishment--he impresses but never quite startles or rivets. His onstage confidence is unassailable, the way he can overpower a trembling young woman with a sneering shout or collapse onto a mattress in a drug-induced pratfall. But the audience member who wants to find urgent authenticity is left to return again and again to Day's technique--solid, but strictly technical. For instructive comparison, you need look no further than a Dallas theater veteran a number of years older than Day, Theatre Three alumnus Terry Vandivort, who hits all his marks and brings a fretful compassion to the role of Grewgious. A solicitor and guardian of Rosa, Grewgious pauses from his anal-retentive legalisms to ponder with furrowed brow his charge and what her parents have bequeathed. Amusingly dampened by duty, fired up by concern with his mistress' troubled state, and rather oblivious to the difference one piece of jewelry will make, Vandivort brings a positively Dickensian gravity to the proceedings--a welcome relief from all the efforts to save Dickens from himself.