I went to the final performance of Rantoul and Die at The Station Theater on Saturday night predisposed to like the play. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.
The playwright, Mark Roberts, is a local boy made good. After getting started in theater at The Station as a youngster, he became a local standup comic; moved to Chicago where he was successful as a comic, and then moved to Los Angeles where he was a successful comic and is now a writer and co-producer of the television series, Two and One-Half Men, which is apparently a hit. Last season, The Station presented Roberts's first play, Welcome to Tolono, which I loved. I thought Welcome was a sensitive and exceptionally funny portrayal of a 12-step program in a small town. It was one of the best plays I have seen at The Station.
Rantoul, like Tolono, where Roberts grew up and the setting of his first play, is a small town near Champaign-Urbana. It is the setting of Roberts's second play for no apparent reason other than the wordplay with "tool and die," which becomes significant in the second act of the play.
Roberts, in an author's note, states that while Welcome was a "memory piece" containing events and stories that took place in Roberts's early teens, Rantoul is not a memory play, but that "It was written in airplanes and in hotel rooms, during one of the most insane, self-destructive periods of my adult life. Hopefully, my last gasp of true stupidity although I make no promises. Except to my wife." Elsewhere he writes that the first draft (and except for one word, the final draft) was finished in October. It appears, then, that the "most insane self-destructive periods" of Roberts's life is rather recent history. I don't want to add to his problems by trashing his play, particularly not, since my friend and occasional reader, p.g., reviewed the play and trashed, not only it but also the author, in a review he put on what he thought was a private blogspot. Roberts happened to find the review and, understandably, was hurt and called p.g. about it, after which p.g. rewrote the review to be more neutral. I wanted to love the play so that i could tell p.g. how wrong he was with his review.
The director of the play, Gary Ambler, has been associated with The Station since its beginning and is an acting genius. If he is acting in a play, I know it will be good. The cast, Jim Dobbs, Mike Trippiedi, Anne Kearns and Joi Hoffsommer, are all veteran performers, some of The Station's best.
With all the play had going for it, and my predisposition to like it, why did I dislike it so much? Well, it was the set, the direction, the dialogue, and the acting. The costumes were okay.
I don't mind minimalist sets. The best play I have ever seen at The Station, The Laramie Project, had a set that consisted of a bunch of chairs and not much else -- maybe a desk. I don't mind using my imagination. But this was not a minimalist set. There were lots of things on the stage. It had not only a couch, chairs, coffee table, kitchen with a well-stocked refrigerator, coffee-maker, but also trinkets and magazines strewn around. But the back wall of what was supposed to be a small living room and kitchen was a chain-link fence. I suppose the fence was there for some symbolic purpose, maybe because the characters of the play felt trapped by marriages and situations. But if that is what the fence was there for, it was too heavy-handed and incongruous. The suspension of disbelief is still an essential part for the enjoyment of a play by me, and my suspension works fine if my imagination is doing the work or if my eyes are doing the work, but it breaks down when my imagination and eyes have conflicting images.
Then there is the directing. I really don't like criticizing someone who has forgotten more about acting than I will ever know, but I can't believe that if Gary Ambler had been one of the actors he would have just stood in one spot and declaimed lengthy monologues without moving, as happened a number of times in this play. The play opens with the character, Gary, played by Jim Dobbs, having Rallis, played by Mike Trippiedi in a chokehold while Gary talks on and on and on. Particularly in the first act before the arrival of Debbie, played by Anne Kearns, Gary and Rallis repeatedly go for long stretches of time without changing position.
The dialogue sounded stilted and wooden to me. All of the characters are Rantoul rednecks, the women are a manager and worker in a Dairy Queen; the men are factory workers. The language they use often sounds like a screen writer talking, not like a real factory worker or Dairy Queen queen.
It seemed to me that with the exception of Hoffsommer, who always added energy to the production when she was on stage, the actors relied on volume to convey emotions rather than the rest of their faces and bodies. There was a lot of shouting. There was way too much shouting. I would have liked to have seen the volume of the whole piece dialed down several numbers in order to save the shouting for the truly horrific.
I would be remiss, however, if I did not point out that the rest of the audience seemed to disagree with my assessment. This performance was sold out, as have been most, if not all, of the performances. The audience laughed uproariously at lines at which I could barely evoke a weak grin. Most of the audience stood for a standing ovation at the end. I and several others did not. I am not usually hard to entertain, but I could not find the entertainment in this play. I gave it two stars out of five.