The best thing that can be said about Free Association Theatre Ensemble’s production of the full-length version of The Retreat by Chapel Hill playwright Mark Cornell is that it only runs about 95 minutes; the worst is unprintable. The Retreat started out as a one-act literary comedy, set at a writers’ retreat where five well-known authors from different eras struggle to find their true voices. Cornell has some fun spoofing The Great Gatsby by drunken Jazz Age chronicler F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), the overheated prose of erotic diarist Anaïs Nin (1903-77), the creepy horror novels of Stephen King (born 1947), the rhyming children’s books of Dr. Seuss (nee Theodor Seuss Geisel, 1904-91), and even the ethereal poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830-86). But Cornell’s well of inspiration dries up long before the (figurative) final curtain puts an end to the audience’s suffering in FATE’s performance space, located in the Harrison Pointe Shopping Center, at the corner of Harrison Ave. and Maynard Rd. in Cary, NC.
Writers’ retreat attendees are famous for smoking, drinking and drugging, and doing the horizontal mambo in-between group-therapy-like sessions where they hash and rehash their prose. But dramatist Mark Cornell has created an improbable love triangle with a super-randy satyr-like Dr. Seuss (Thom Haynes) chasing after a chaste Anaïs Nin (Sara Croninger) while she inexplicably opens her heart and her bed to a timid Stephen King (Wyatt Geist), who is seemingly afraid of his own shadow.
Brook North as tipsy Scott Fitzgerald and Jessi Nemeth as a chain-smoking, potty-mouthed misanthropic Emily Dickinson have little to do, and Cornell adds cameo appearances American poet Robert Frost (Kurt Benrud) and British mystery novelist Agatha Christie (Jessica Kent) in a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to spice up the proceedings.
Director John Paul Middlesworth takes a heavy-handed approach to what should be light and lively material. He allows Thom Haynes to take Dr. Seuss so far over the top that he becomes a poster boy for drooling lechery, and neither Brook North as Fitzgerald nor Wyatt Geist as King have the acting chops to bring those two novelists to life. Sara Croninger manages a few sex-kittenish moments as Anaïs Nin, and Jessi Nemeth has some fun making Emily Dickinson a real pill. But the large supporting cast — Kurt Benrud, George Kaiser, Jessica Kent, Oliver Vest, Cassandra Wladyslava, and Ken Wolpert — does little to heighten the hilarity.
The Retreat isn’t exactly D.O.A., but it quickly wears out its welcome. Whether the play, the players, or the production is the chief culprit is a matter for future argument. I’m sure all of them have had better days.
SECOND OPINION: Jan. 18th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/01/18/926386/writers-re-imagined-in-the-retreat.html. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Jan. 14th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2011/01/in-mark-cornells-offbeat-comedy-the-retreat-five-great-writers-struggle-to-find-their-true-voices/.)
Free Association Theatre Ensemble presents THE RETREAT at 8 p.m. Jan. 21 and 22 in FATE’s performance space, located in the Harrison Pointe Shopping Center, 267 Grande Heights Dr., Cary, North Carolina 27513.
TICKETS: $15 ($10 students and educators, seniors, and active-duty military personnel).
BOX OFFICE: 919/228-8184, FATEreservations@gmail.com, or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/142952.
The Play: http://www.markcornell.net/mark/Plays.html (Mark Cornell’s official website).
Sample Pages: http://www.markcornell.net/mark/Plays_files/The Retreat for the web.pdf (Mark Cornell’s official website).
The Playwright: http://www.markcornell.net/ (official website).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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