Review: “Torso” by Keri Healey. Produced by Printer’s Devil Theater. Directed by David Bennett. With Sarah Rudinoff, John Q. Smith, Emily Chisholm, Susanna Burney, and Stephen Hando. Now through March 31 at Theatre Off Jackson.
It’s interesting to note that three new plays opened this month, produced by three interesting smaller theater companies and all three plays written by local women playwrights. It’s also interesting, but not very surprising, that all three works feature very strong roles for actresses. I complained a bit last year, that there seemed to be a dearth of tough, passionate, well written and complex parts for our many excellent local actresses…with one fell swoop, three interesting plays/productions have upped the ante for 2012. The three plays vary in quality, but all feature dramatic and powerful roles for women and demonstrate both the talent of those actresses and the three playwrights who have created these new works.
It makes sense to start with the best of the lot…local playwright Keri Healey’s semi-autobiographical “Torso” is a dazzling, puzzle box of a play with an intricate, carefully layered plot; inventive, fascinating and complexly real characters and a rich sense of both the horror and comedy of life. “Torso” weaves together multiple storylines, set in different locations and times that involves disastrous blind dates, family tragedies, bad theatrical auditions, family feuds, jealousy, revenge and ultimately murder. It has a lot of intricately detailed plot, but Ms Healey brilliantly weaves together all the various threads into a complete and artistically satisfying whole while creating rich, vibrant, eccentric but believable characters and dialogue that can veer from sardonic comedy to dark drama within the context of a single scene. It’s superbly written, directed, designed and acted by a dream cast of local theatrical talent. It’s not to be missed.
It’s also damn near impossible to accurately do a synopsis of the plot of “Torso” (and, it would spoil the show) but in a nutshell, “Torso” centers on one woman, Daphne, as she deals with three contrasting events in her life: the relatively recent tragic death of her younger sister; the very recent news that a childhood friend has been accused of murdering her brother and the complications caused by her relationship with a surly cabdriver. All these plot threads are carefully revealed and very gradually woven together; in the early stages of the play, it can be a bit confusing: “Who is this character?” “What does THAT mean?” but Ms Healey slyly ties up and connects each new piece of information and each new character as she weaves her tapestry. “Torso” is definitely a show where you need to pay attention; it’s not a show for the mentally challenged. It demands a cognitive response from the audience but it pays off in spades in the end. Director David Bennett does an excellent job of staging the intricacies of the plot, frequently with contrasting scenes beginning quickly as preceding ones end. “Torso” is expertly paced, like a classic thriller, and Mr. Bennett manages the difficult task of simultaneously physically moving the production along, and shaping the nuanced performances from the actors. It’s a superb job of direction.
The production is aided by the excellent design work. Jake Nelson’s simple but effect set design makes effective use of TOJ’s slightly awkward staging space and gets multiple uses out of the simple set pieces. Robert J. Aguilar is one of the city’s top lighting designers and while he’s used to the far bigger and more elaborate lighting grids at the Big Houses in town, he manages to create a rich and cinematic lighting design with the limitations of a small house grid/budget. Sarah Harlett’s contemporary costumes are right on the mark and appropriate for each character’s personality and motivations. Finally, the original music by John Ackerman and sound design by Michael Hayes jointly create a noiresque vibe that is haunting and also appropriately cinematic. To be frank, the combination of Ms Healey’s complexly entertaining script, the direction and the excellent design work all suggest a work that frequently feels more like a Coen Brothers thriller comedy than a traditional play, an effect that is difficult to achieve but richly rewarding on stage if done correctly. This team has managed it.
I’m saving the excellent cast for last. The pretty much universally beloved Seattle actress Sarah Rudinoff has scores of admirers and rightfully so, for her superb singing voice and excellent sense of comedy timing. Ms Rudinoff doesn’t belt out any Broadway tunes, but her comedy skills are well utilized in “Torso”; it’s a drama, but a drama with lots of great comedic moments. In the lead role of Daphne, the actress naturally shines in the comedic bits, especially as the Drunk Taxi Passenger From Hell, but Ms Rudinoff also nails the pain and anger of a woman dealing with the crippling loss of a sister. It’s a big, bold, gutsy performance but also one with great nuance and depth and believability.
She’s very well matched by her leading man, John Q. Smith as the Taxi Driver Eddie who has a bit of a past with Daphne. Every once in awhile, a local talent comes along that surprises and delights you, and while Mr. Smith has been working in Seattle theater for several years, I’ve never really come across him before…I think 2012 might be the year that Mr. Smith deservedly becomes a “Big Name To Pay Attention To” in local theater. He stole the show in Strawshop’s January production “The Bells” as a drunk, grizzled miner/hobo and here he commands the stage as a dynamic leading man. His Eddie is complex; at times a gruff man of few words but equally capable of tenderness and warmth. The actor and the power he brings to the stage recalls the great stage/film/tv actor Brian Dennehy and I want to see Mr. Smith play some of those big, leading man roles. (And, it’s also refreshing to see a leading man/woman duo in an entertainment that aren’t your typical “Skinny Young Actress/Muscular Young Stud”…Ms Rudinoff and Mr. Smith are full figured, “real people” who are usually assigned to supporting character roles and not as the romantic leads. They’re a believable, exciting and SEXY couple!)
As support, Emily Chisholm, Susanna Burney and Stephen Hando excellently play a variety of roles but primarily the three actors form the plot line for the “Childhood Friend Accused Of Murdering Her Brother” thread in the play, with Ms Burney as the self-centered friend (who’s also an actress); Mr. Hando as her misfit younger brother; and Ms Chisholm as his more practical live-in girlfriend. I say “support” but their plot thread and the characters created by Ms Healey and the performances from the three actors could easily be spun off into their own starring vehicle. The dysfunctional dynamics of their family lead to a horrifyingly inept murder plot with tragic consequences and all three actors are superb in their roles. Ms Burney’s flaky selfishness veers between divine comedy and poignant drama and equally matched by Mr. Hando as the perpetual loser of a brother who ultimately breaks under the pressure. Ms Chisholm also shines as the girlfriend who’s more level headed and practical than the brother-sister duo, but also ultimately a victim of their greed and ignorance. In fact, sometimes I wanted to spend MORE time with these characters and their situations than some of the other plot threads, a minor weakness of this production. All the threads are so interesting, that you resent having to choose among them.
Some quibbles: “Torso” is a strong, powerful and original work of theater but it could use a trim a two. The plot thread involving Daphne and the death of her sister could use some tightening; it’s the weakest of the numerous threads which is interesting as it’s apparently the most autobiographical part of the show reflecting the playwright’s own experiences. The scenes of Daphne giving deposition in the wrongful death suit of her sister are a bit unfocused and confusing at times with the use of voice overs by other actors in the show. And, the only unworkable moment in the show for me, was a flashback to youth scene involving Daphne’s sister…it was the only fake/actory moment in the play. Such a scene could work on film, with younger actors playing those characters, but on stage it just felt…phony and contrived. The scene provided a valuable moment in the show, for that plot and the character development, but the execution needs rethought…in my humble opinion.
Tweaks aside, “Torso” is a gripping, complicated night of theater with an inventive plot and amazing characters and superb performances. It’s must see theater and it’s going to the head of “Best of” Lists for 2012. You have to check it out.