Tone Clusters @ Theatricum Botanicum

The performance of Joyce Carol Oates’ “Tone Clusters” offers an audience the opportunity of witnessing an ensemble whose collected talents would burst the confining seams of your average venue, so it is altogether fitting that they should be gracing the stage at the open air Theatricum Botanicum.

Since 1963 Oates has penned over forty novels, a small mountain of short stories, literary criticism and poetry and may have achieved the record for the number of times her name has appeared on the short list for the Pulitzer Prize.

The evening directed by Mike Peebler opens with four short dramatic pieces.

I Stand Before You Naked” explores the vulnerability one must endure when disrobing both one’s body and one’s soul. In other productions, this piece has been the exclusive domain of women, with as few as five and as many as ten performing the piece. Peebler reduces the number of voices to two actresses (Cynthia Kania and Sarah Lyddan) and one actor (Jonathan Blandino). This choice results in both a focusing and widening of the piece’s dramatic resonances.

The Secret Mirror” evolved from a 1975 short story by Oates and explores the tortured psyche of a transvestite (Blandino) during his metamorphoses from one persona to another safe within the confines of a seedy hotel room.

In references to his play “No Exit” Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, “Other people are hell.” Oates seems to be expressing a different view, that who we are and who we feign to be can likewise be our own anguish. Blandino delivers a deftly chiseled rendering of the soul condemned by the inability to flee oneself for the freedom to be another. Cynthia Kania, in “Slow Motion”, convincingly conjures up the isolation of a woman, who, with in a casual glance, glimpses the bleak destiny awaiting her. Sarah Lyddan as an anorexic in rapturous anticipation of allowing herself to feast on an orange slice, rattles the audience to their core by her depiction of neurotic euphoria bordering on religious ecstasy. At the conclusion of her piece the audience articulated a collective “wow.”

The second half of the evening is reserved for “Tone Clusters”, the longest and most elaborately staged of the pieces. Taking as its source the brutal slaying of 13-year-old Kelly Ann Tinyes in March of 1989, Oates’ original effort took the form of a poem. Adapted in 1990 as a dramatic work, as part of an experimental play series, the cadence and intonation of its earlier incarnation remains.

Husband and wife Katherine James and Alan Blumenfeld portray the mundane, middle class, Middle American Gulicks. In Frank and Emily, Oates has crafted a modern retelling of the Oedipus tragedy. Like Oedipus they are driven towards a tragic revelation of the evil for which one is not responsible, but which, when faced, bestows blindness. But unlike classical Greek drama, what compels the Gulicks to their inevitable fate are not the Furies of myth, but of the media.

Before the advent of Court TV, reality programming and Fox News, Oates foresaw a time when news coverage would cease to be an investigation and mutate into an inquisition.

With a large intrusive screen between and surrounded by the smaller screens of numerous TV sets, the Gulicks fall prey to a multimedia web woven of “news clips”.

Peebler wisely concentrates his efforts on shaping the actors’ performances, rather than cluttering the stage with extreme theatrics as a lesser director might. His precision and finesse in structuring the evening are praiseworthy to begin with, but in Blumenfeld and James he is fortunate enough to have two Stradivarius as his instruments, whose performances are unparalleled.

Oates, with her writing, reminds us of the fragileness inflicting all humanity.

“Our house is made of glass… and our lives are made of glass; and there is nothing we can do to protect ourselves.”


Tone Clusters

Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Topanga CA 90290
(midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway)
(310) 455-3723

Sept. 5 – October 12
Thursday, Sept. 26 @ 8 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 4 @ 8 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 12 @ 8 p.m.

General admission: $25
Seniors, students, military veterans, members of Actors Equity: $15