A Savage love triangle
Free Play presents Savage in Limbo
Continuing its long-running war on traditional proscenium arch-framed theatre, the Free Play Theatre Cooperative took the Schwartz Auditorium two weeks ago and set it up as the home for John Patrick Shanley’s Savage in Limbo.
Under the direction of Aaron Arbiter ‘10, this production marked the space as Free Play’s eighth different venue in nine shows. Schwartz, an underrated and wonderfully intimate space for theatrical productions, proved an excellent home for a strong production that showcased a great sense of staging on Arbiter’s part and a cast that gave uniformly strong performances.
Savage begins with April White (Sophie Sinclair ’09), an apparently drugged-out barfly, alone in the bar with the cold, steady barkeep, Murk (Harry Wolff ’10), before thirty-two-year-old virgin Denise Savage (Rachel Barr ’10) bursts in on their slow Monday eagerly seeking some excitement. Shortly, Linda Rotunda (Amy Hoffman ’10) also enters, in tears because her boyfriend Tony Aronica (Nathan Hakimi ’11) has decided to leave her to date “ugly girls.” At first, Denise works to build some unity among the three women, all former classmates from high school, trying to organize for the trio to get an apartment and move in together, but when Tony shows up, all bets are off.
After Tony tries to explain his need to change the lifestyle he’s been living, Denise suddenly turns on Linda and tries winning Tony for herself. For the remainder of the play, Linda and Denise fight for Tony’s affection, Tony struggles to make sense of his need for a change in life, and Murk tries to protect April against the hostility of the other inhabitants of the bar (and make sure everyone has a drink at all times).
The actual staging of this play was one of the chief successes of the production. Throughout, Murk and April were kept upstage, Murk behind his bar and April in her stool, as the other three paced throughout the space like restless animals. This was quite a wonderful touch by Arbiter to manifest every character’s aspirations; Murk values stability and reliability above all else, and struggles to keep the nearly-crazy April similarly stable, while Tony, Denise, and Linda all can feel themselves on the cusp of a big, life-changing moment although they can’t see just what it is and have to keep trying to work their way through to realizing this transformation. It also works wonderfully with the aesthetic distance the play imposes on everything that is said.
During the lengthy monologues the characters deliver attempting to understand their situation and work out how they can change everything, every other character was usually still, helping to focus attention on the speaker. Almost every such piece ends with another character making a biting statement about the inanity of what has just happened, snapping the distance between viewer and character back into place more powerfully because the audience had just been so openly invited to share the speaker’s hopes, dreams, and intimate thoughts.
Hoffman’s portrayal of Linda stood out as an excellent example of naturalistic acting. Her performance was clean, focused, honest, and ultimately very compelling. Sinclair’s outing as the tragic failed nun April was also highly praiseworthy. Her character is key to the piece’s dark comedy—many things she says are deeply tragic, yet also very funny because they come seemingly out of nowhere and disrupt the tension between other characters—and her performance thrived within this duality.
Hakimi, meanwhile, was spot on in his delivery of the more hostile, biting humor Shanley has infused Tony with, and turned in a similarly solid overall performance.
Wolff’s Murk was also very interesting, in his odd balance between general cold distaste for the ever-changing world at large and sympathy (or even love) for April. His scene where he donned a Santa Claus and spoke to April as Santa Claus to help her keep from going crazy may have been the most touching scene in the show.
Barr exhibited a great grasp of her Denise and her aggressive, attacking impulses, but from time to time she appeared to become a little disconnected from the action and come on a little stronger than actually seemed to make sense within her scenes.
The design for the production was simple and efficient: A bar in back for Murk to stay at, a stool for April, a couple chairs and tables, and three big lights illuminating the performance space. Keeping it simple was most effective, because this very much is a play that has a simple and straightforward focus on its characters. This arrangement brought out the intimacy of the three-quarters thrust setup of the Schwartz Auditorium, where the audience was so close to the action.
As a whole, Savage in Limbo was another successful notch in Free Play’s belt. The space, script, direction, and acting all congealed together to create an interesting, engaging production.