Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern has done it again. The Durham, NC-based group, known for their wild, original — dare I say avant-garde — pieces, has brought a world premiere to Triangle audiences; and if you have ten or fifteen bucks to spend, buy a ticket to this show immediately. Stroke/Book by Michigan-based playwright David Turkel is two separate plays, each telling a wholly different story, with minor dramatic through-lines connecting each of them thematically. Tom Marriott, a long-time contributor onstage and offstage at Little Green Pig, and a well-known member of the Triangle theatrical community at large, takes these two stories and presents them to us in the style of Japanese Noh theater. If there is one thing to say about Little Green Pig, they are fearless.
Act I is Stroke, a ghost story set in Victorian times. Evgenia Madorsky plays Anna, a troubled young girl being forced to entertain the men by her mother (Tamara Kissane) in hopes of securing a husband. The family nursemaid is Zita (Dana Marks). As it seems to go with nursemaids, this one has a secret. In fact, this whole family is full of them — including a twin, Bron (Aaron Dunlap). Or is he? Stroke twists and turns and spirals into something you never see coming. The entire tale is presided over by the stroke-ridden remains of the father figure, Arthur (Jeffrey Scott Detwiler). In terms of style, Stroke provides us with the most presentational, the most “Noh-like” of performances. The ensemble works well in this act; they are, for the most part, solid, operating efficiently together to steer the audience through these dark worlds (yes, plural).
It is Little Green Pig managing director Dana Marks, however, who is the standout performer, not just in this act, but in the show as a whole. Marks proves herself, once again, to be one of the finest actors working in this area as her Zita painfully recounts a tragic event from her past that would influence her entire future, and the future of the other characters, with such anguish that it sent chills through the room, resonating to the very core.
Marks navigates Zita’s journey with such skill and precision that you can’t help but be become engrossed from the moment she appears. This same energy and her pulchritude carry over into Book, as well, where she gets to show off her talents in a more naturalistic fashion. Marks’ near perfection is an example of the craft of acting at its finest.
The same group of performers return for Act II, Book, which begins with a young man, Paul (Aaron Dunlap), propositioning a woman (Tamara Kissane) for sex, using the money he received from babysitting her mentally challenged child, Max, whom we never see. The introduction of a cursed pillow (which has been present through the entirety of Act I, but never used until now) allows this story to rocket off into the stratosphere as Paul’s entire life — into adulthood — unravels before us. We see Paul’s success that comes from writing a book called Fragile Site (a play on Fragile-X, the genetic disorder that Max has), while he is on the brink of suicide after being injured in war, as well as his emotional volatility and failed attempt at love.
All but Aaron Dunlap in this piece play multiple characters, sometimes switching in the blink of an eye. Jeffrey Detwiler plays a zealous Sergeant who works as Paul’s mentor. What the Sergeant has to say is important — very important — to the evolution of the story, but Detwiler’s characterization is a bit too comically broad to really grasp all of the thoughts. It is a prime example of playing for the laugh, and not the truth of the text.
Dramatist David Turkel has penned some very beautiful phrases to express some intriguing ideas, rooted in the Western religions, to come out of the Sergeant’s mouth; and it is a shame to see some of them wasted in order to achieve a chuckle. Detwiler finds his footing though in a brief cameo as a book critic; and he really shines as the older version of Paul, Matthew Casey.
Tamara Kissane does her best work in Book as well, playing the mother-turned-prostitute, an Army nurse, Paul’s agent, and others. This is not to say that her turn in Stroke is not a fine performance; but there seemed to be something lacking, an air of incompletion.
Aaron Dunlap’s Bron in Stroke is exciting to watch as he tries to understand the circumstances he has found himself in. His Paul is angry, troubled, confused, and on fire.
Evgenia Madorsky, however, is the most inconsistent of this band of five. It’s not for lack of trying; Madorsky is committed, that’s clear. But it seems as though her acting chops, as it were, are not up to par with her counterparts on stage; and that allows her to be singled out at times as a weak link. What is promising, however, is that you can see the potential. Under the right direction, and perhaps with some more training and experience, she will be truly great.
Under the skillful guidance of Stroke/Book director Tom Marriott, who also served as the show’s set designer, the entire production really gels. Chelsea Kurtzman shows off her considerable costuming talents in Stroke, giving us a gruesome, ghost of a glint of Victorian garb. Steve Tell’s lighting adds a stark enhancement, and Tom Guild’s sound design is truly haunting. Guild’s high-pitched strings, paying homage to Japanese Noh music, heighten the intensity of the stories and take them to a terrifying place.
Tom Marriott’s set made great use of the cavernous performance space in Golden Belt (Building B), allowing the depth of the space to be used to great effect — for a truly startling moment in Stroke, and as a travel piece in Book, among a few others. The bare backstage area at times proved a little distracting, watching performers move from one side to the other; and there was a bit of clunk while actors ascend and descend from the backstage staircase. But the set really helped boost this show into something truly spectacular. However, be forewarned, the first two rows of seats in the house, while beautiful and fitting for the theme, are truly a pain in the rear.
The biggest negative about the evening is that the closure of the piece left me wanting something stronger; I wanted more finality, more completion. From what I got on Thursday night, I can’t say this “open” ending was intentional, because I’m just not sure. Dana Marks as Matsukaze (a story line that pretty much appears out of nowhere) kneels on the stage, over a pail that has captured the moon, and sings an affectingly beautiful melody — but Paul’s story, and the combination of the two pieces overall, seems to be unfinished. Perhaps, this is something for playwright David Turkel to explore as he continues forward with the piece.
Little Green Pig continues to do what few companies are doing in this area: taking new, original, never-before-seen works and breathing amazing, fresh life into them. While the subject matter may not be accessible to all audiences in this area, the productions continue to entice and enthrall, not only visually, but emotionally as well. I hope that the small house of which I was a part (it numbered about six, including the playwright) will fill up for the duration of the run, if for no other reason than to experience something you can’t get anywhere else around here right now.
SECOND OPINION: March 2nd Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 4 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/an-unsettling-inventive-double-bill-in-little-green-pigs-strokebook/Content?oid=2101385. ( Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Feb. 22nd Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2011/02/david-turkels-strokebook-intertwines-the-worlds-of-the-living-and-the-dead/.)
Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern presents STROKE/BOOK at 8 p.m. March 2-5 at Golden Belt (Building B), 807 E. Main St., Durham, North Carolina 27701.
TICKETS: $15, except $10 seniors and $8 Student Rush Tickets.
BOX OFFICE: firstname.lastname@example.org or 919/452-9204.
Jesse R. Gephart is a Raleigh, NC actor, director, and theater critic. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review. To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line.
To read all of Jesse R. Gephart’s Triangle Theater Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/jesse-r-gephart/.