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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014

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The cast of Windfall Theatre's production of "The Petrified Forest."
The cast of Windfall Theatre's production of "The Petrified Forest."

Windfall's "Petrified Forest" is petrifyingly lacking

It was half a century ago when Bob Dylan released an album titled "The Times They Are A-Changin’." The song is an eloquent testimony to how different the world had become in 1964.

The same song could be used as theme music for the production of "The Petrified Forest," the Robert Sherwood play that opened Friday night at the Windfall Theatre.

To say that the play seemed out of date and without any relevance to the world we know today seems a massive understatement. There is a significant body of scholarly work that claims the play is full of deep symbolism and, as the Windfall notes say, "… as disturbingly resonant today as it was in 1934."

That all may be true, but whatever truths exist in this play were buried under an avalanche of acting that avoided even the premise of sensitivity and honesty.

The art of the theater, and indeed the art of acting, is that the actor takes what the playwright has written and makes more of it. He makes it his own. He finds the depth and the dimensions of the character and throws that dimension out on the stage for the audience to savor.

What this play offers is a lesson in the cardboard cutout school of theater. And it’s very surprising. Windfall has done magnificent work in the past, and director Carol Zippel is both an outstanding director and an outstanding actor. But she had almost nothing to work with here.

The story – which was both a popular play and a popular movie that launched Humphrey Bogart’s career – is simple. It’s set in a dusty diner in the middle of Arizona. A variety of characters move through the diner, each one with a tale to tell and a goal in mind. Today, this entire thing seems trite, as if lifted from a Lifetime movie starring actors whose expiration date has passed.

Everybody in this play seems like the broadest stereotype.

You have the daughter/waitress who dreams of faraway places (in this case France, where she was inexplicably born). 

You have her father who is always angry. 

You have her grandfather who is crusty and a little dotty.

You have the hired hand who is always horny around her.

You have the world-weary, good looking, mysterious stranger.

Not one of these characters gave us anything except what was on the page of the script. And this script is outdated and simple, unless it’s brought to life by amazing acting performances.

And for good measure, you have a series of minor characters who act like they just showed up a few moments before the curtain rose, deciding that being an actor for an evening might be a kick.

I can’t begin to describe how much respect I have for actors.  They step onto a stage with words that aren’t their own, and they try to carry us into their world for a couple of hours. Weeks and weeks go into it before opening night. Actors struggle, they discuss, they struggle some more, they think and then they discuss the whole thing again. And then they go out and act. It’s a profession fraught with both excruciating difficulties and exhilarating joys. And it requires hard, hard work.

This cast either didn’t work hard, or they were unable to work hard enough. Taking a play as dated as this required both magnificent talent and effort.

Unfortunately, neither one showed up in the middle of this petrified forest. It was almost as if the the petrifying forces were contagious, and every one of the actors caught the bug.

For more information on "The Petrified Forest," click here.

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