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Of Mice and Men
by John Steinbeck
Directed by Jacqueline Thompson
SATE Ensemble Theatre
November 9, 2017

Carl Overly, Jr., Adam Flores
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE is back again, producing their remarkably ambitious, dynamic brand of theatre and this time succeeding in transforming a theatrical classic into something that’s at once faithful to the source material and dynamically immediate for today’s audiences. Of Mice and Men, as presented at the Chapel, features a remarkable cast and truly innovative direction, making for a must-see theatrical production.

As far as I can tell, not a word of the actual script has been changed. What has changed, instead, is the subtext, and deliberate casting and directorial choices that make this old story into something new. It’s still the story of migrant farm workers in 1935 California, centering on the small-statured, world-weary George (Adam Flores) and his friend, the larger, much stronger but developmentally challenged and somewhat childlike Lennie (Carl Overly, Jr.). The story follows them as they have left a recent job and are about to start a new one. George is protective of Lennie, who doesn’t know his own strength and isn’t aware of the consequences of his actions or of the way he is perceived by others. The new job is on a ranch owned by The Boss (Jack Corey), whose son, Curley (Michael Cassidy Flynn), is highly insecure and suspicious, with a grudge against anyone bigger than him and mistrustful of his new wife (Courtney Bailey Parker). The work crew consists of a disparate group including Candy (Natasha Toro), who is drawn to Lennie and George and wants to help them achieve their dream of getting a place of their own, joining them in living “on the fat of the land”. There’s also the somewhat impulsive Carlson (Shane Signorino), the gossipy Whit (Ryan Lawson-Maeske), the more easygoing Slim (Joe Hanrahan), and stablehand Crooks (Omega Jones), who doesn’t get to share the bunkhouse and is treated with more suspicion than the other workers because he is black. The story plays out as written, as trouble continues to find Lennie and George, and tragedy follows. What’s different about this production, though, is the relationship dynamics brought about by the insightful direction and deliberately non-traditional casting, which works to emphasize the element of secrecy that’s already inherent in the plot.

The casting really does change things up, forcing the viewer to see this well-known story through a new lens. It still works for the time and place, as well. Here, the traditionally white roles of Lennie and George are played by Flores, who is Latino, and Overly, who is black but of lighter complexion than Jones, who plays Crooks and whose character is clearly treated as inferior by his co-workers. Here, a key scene between Lennie and Crooks gains new power as Crooks points out the difference in their situations, also making it clear that Lennie is unaware of the reason for this difference, although Crooks is very aware. There’s also the casting of a Latina woman, Toro, playing the traditionally white male role of Candy, although the clear suggestion, made even more obvious by a scene with Curley’s wife, is that this Candy is a woman living as a man, although few people seem to realize that fact. The relationship dynamics bring a lot to the story, making the sense of alienation and looking for a place to belong even more of a prominent theme than it was already in this story.

The casting is first-rate, with strong, memorable portrayals by all of the players. Overly, as Lennie, gives a truly remarkable performance especially, portraying Lennie’s childlike enthusiasm and a sense of longing that underscores all of his actions, and his affection and rapport with Flores as George is apparent. Flores is also strong in a poignant performance as the determined, weary and protective George. There’s also excellent work from Toro as Candy, Jones as Crooks, who also has a poignant musical moment singing “The House of the Rising Sun” at the beginning of Act 2, accompanied by the production’s musical director, Chris Ware, who is a presence throughout the production, sitting just offstage playing his guitar, supplying the music that underscores this production. There are also strong performances from Flynn as the belligerent Curley, and by Parker as his lonely wife. Corey, Signorino, and Lawson-Maeske lend excellent support, as well. It’s a fully inhabited, real, human world on stage at the Chapel, and the excellent chemistry of the cast adds much to the drama and immediacy of this production.

Also adding to the production is the strong sense of time and place conveyed in the technical elements here. Bess Moynihan’s versatile set and evocative lighting suggests an authentic setting as well as the transience of the characters. Liz Henning’s excellent costumes, Rachel Tibbetts’s props, and Ellie Schwetye’s sound design also contribute well to the overall mood of the production, as does Chris Ware’s aforementioned striking music and Lawson-Maeske’s fight choreography.

This is the story you may know, but it’s also not. It’s old and it’s new, and it’s profoundly affecting. Of Mice and Men at SATE is another superb, intelligent and challenging production from this continually impressive theatre company.

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Natasha Toro, Carl Overly, Jr., Adam Flores, Courtney Bailey Parker, Omega Jones Photo by Joey Rumpell SATE Ensemble Theatre

 

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting Of Mice and Men at the Chapel until November 18, 2017.

 

 

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