The Stories Actors Tell

Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of a show?  What kinds of conversations do cast and crew have?  What is the nature of their relationships?  Ben Beck’s play, The Wings, presents some possible answers in a staged reading that took place at the Shelterbelt Theatre tonight.

Beck has written an exceptionally strong script and I’m very excited to see how much stronger it can become with another rewrite or two.  Beck’s theatrical background is certainly prevalent in the script as he well captures personalities one genuinely does find in theatre, but one need not be an actor to appreciate Beck’s scripts.  These personalities exist in all walks of life.

Beck also has written some very compelling stories.  The various vignettes will make you laugh and they will make you shed a tear or two.  My only recommendations for his script would be to reduce the specificity of some of his stage directions and experiment with some different combinations of his characters.  In particular, I think a scene between the Veteran and the Director could make for a wonderful tale.

The direction of Susie Baer-Collins is absolutely incredible.  Her sense of the play’s beats is right on the money and her staging went well beyond what I would have expected for reader’s theatre.  With the movement and scene changes, this was really a play where the actors just didn’t have to memorize their lines.  Ms Baer-Collins has also culled a number of great performances from a cast that was simply stacked with talent.

I could spend pages discussing the individual performances of this cast, but to save time, I will simply say there isn’t a weak link in this cast.  Jonathan Purcell generates some laughs as the Actor who needs to be led by the hand through each individual beat.  Leanne Hill Carlson gives multilayered performances within a multilayered performance as the self-absorbed Actress who is beginning to tire of her boyfriend.  Liz Kendall Weisser is extraordinarily tactful, but firm as the Stage Manager.  Megan Friend is sweet and a bit pitiable as the Understudy who is fairly new to the business.  Delaney Driscoll is an interesting blend of stuck-up and sensitive as the Leading Lady.

Greg Harries gives a standout performance which is made all the more impressive by the fact that he was just reading the stage directions.  Beck’s vivid directions gave Harries the chance to be a sort of omnipotent presence offering his own commentary on what is going on.  I also thoroughly enjoyed Harries’ movement choices, especially when he prevents the Boyfriend from starting a practice audition over from the start.  Should Beck keep his stage directions as they are, I would honestly recommend casting an actor to read them as I thought it added quite a bit to his play.

Steve Hartman’s performance as the Boyfriend was, hands down, the funniest of the night.  He’s a whiney sad sack who is envious of his girlfriend’s theatrical success.  He also happens to absolutely suck as a performer.  His practice audition as Richard from Henry VI, Part 3 is so ludicrously awful that it is a scene-chewing delight.

Jerry Longe steps away from comedy to provide a tragic, yet hopeful, performance as the Veteran.  Longe’s Veteran was a once talented actor whose love for the bottle has blasted a good career.  It is implied that his casting in the play’s unnamed show was a last chance to salvage a dying career and it is failing.  His alcoholism is wrecking his memory and ruining shows.  The tears Longe sheds after being dressed down by the Stage Manager make for the strongest moment in The Wings.  Yet there is hope for the Veteran.  While his career may be dwindling, he does have hope for friendship, possibly even love, as he bolsters the spirits of the Understudy in another pivotal scene.

Thomas Becker ties the play’s two ends together with a beautifully underplayed performance as the Director.  At the play’s start, he seems like a bit of a bully and possibly not that good of a director as he verbally roughs up the Actor and seems unable to give a cogent note.  His deliberate avoidance of the word “honesty” provides a wonderful framing device for the end of the show when he is finally being honest with himself for the first time in a while as we learn why he is a bit of a brute.

In the end, I think The Wings has nearly limitless potential as a full scale production.  It is a neat little slice of life production with heart, intelligence, and tragedy.  I would very much recommend that the Shelterbelt give this play a chance to reach its full potential in the very near future.

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