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To say that the play seemed out of date and without any relevance to the world we know today seems a massive understatement.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 And this script is outdated and simple, unless it’s brought to life by amazing acting performances.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.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Dave Begel
Published May 4, 2017
There are many people in Milwaukee who lead very public lives. One of them, surely, is David Stearns, the general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. We sat down with him to see what makes him tick.
Published May 2, 2017
With a May 8 deadline looming, the war of words over a proposed strip club Downtown is escalating. A coalition of powerful business interests remain opposed, with the mayor and members of the Common Council on the other side, using Minneapolis as an example.
Published April 30, 2017
Let us all agree about what Junie B. Jones is not. She is not a crook. She is not a nutball. She is not in love with Handsome Warren. What she is, though, is the center of a wonderfully funny story, "Junie B. Jones Is Not a Crook."
Published April 29, 2017
Theater can make you feel a lot of things, most of them wondrous, but on rare occasion it can make me feel like a dummy. And that's what I felt like after seeing "Jane Eyre," the final show of the season at The Rep, which opened Friday night.
Published April 27, 2017
It's impossible to stop thinking about the production of "Carnival" currently being staged at In Tandem Theatre, which I reviewed on opening night last week and is a fascinating example of what can happen when you stretch yourself and dream big dreams.
Published April 25, 2017
Start with a girl, beautiful and rich. Then add in her uncle and guardian who wants to marry her so he can get the money and toss in a high-born stranger who also wants the girl's hand in marriage. What you have is Florentine's "Barber of Seville."
Published April 22, 2017
For 15 years, under the guidance of art therapist Lori Vance, ExYoMKE has gone one-on-one with some of the most disaffected children in Milwaukee, children of all races and genders, and tried to help them see the world through the eyes of an artist.
Published April 22, 2017
One of the most wonderful evenings at a theater is when the show starts on a high note and just keeps getting better and better until you get to an ending where your heart is lying on the floor and your eyes are clouded with tears. That's "Carnival."
Published April 21, 2017
"The Fantasticks" is a simple little musical, the longest running in history, about a boy and a girl and being in love. The problem in the Off the Wall Theatre production is that the boy can't hold up his end of the deal, and the whole production suffers.
Published April 20, 2017
When I'm moved, I write, and fortunately, with OnMilwaukee, I have a place for that writing. The series of Uber tales from the road have run intermittently, but this story, more than anything else, proved that words and social media have the power to spark action, to make a real difference.