The Tone Clusters
Nestled in the hills of Topanga Canyon, Theatricum Botanicum brings its 40th anniversary season to a close with a limited six-show run of Joyce Carol Oates' "Tone Clusters," preceded by three short monologues also by the prestigious author. Powerfully simple in its staggering complexity, "Tone Clusters" forces the audience to mentally toil in an attempt to approach conclusions it refuses to confirm with one of Oates' notorious open endings.
The night begins with a group recitation of Oates' "I Stand Before You Naked," followed by each of the three actors presenting her own individual Oates monologues. "The Secret Mirror" is a bittersweet look into a moment in the life of a closeted transgender woman who has snuck away to a hotel room to be alone with her dresses, wigs, makeup and alter ego in the mirror.
"Slow Motion" is a rather dull (particularly when bookended by such high energy monologues) view of a woman who feels as though things are moving in slow motion as she walks towards what she knows to be life-changing news.
Finally, "The Orange" is a fascinating portrayal of anorexia and the rationalizations and extremes sufferers battle on a daily basis, a teen girl in this case.
Jonathan Blandino brought the tortured transwoman of "The Secret Mirror" to life, successfully portraying the joy of finally feeling comfortable in one's skin (and preferred gender's clothing) as well as the fears the community constantly faces.
"Slow Motion's" Cynthia Kania had tough competition in her fellow actors, and didn't quite hold her own. Her notably acted portrayal coupled with her low energy piece made for what felt like an out of place performance.
Sarah Lyddan's "The Orange" stole the night. Her bubbly, sweet, funny, yet horribly tormented teen anorexia sufferer was complex and nuanced. Her brilliant smile at the thought of eating a slice of orange or how much weight she had lost was infectious, and her feelings of persecution by those who noticed her wasting away inspired great sympathy.
"Tone Clusters," inspired by the 1990 murder of a 13-year-old girl by her 22-year-old neighbor Robert Golub, consists entirely of an interview with Frank and Emily Gulick, the parents of Oates' fictional version of Golub. The Gulicks agree to the interview in an attempt to set the record straight and prove their son's innocence, but, guided by the metaphysical questions of the unseen, omnipresent interviewer that soar over their graying heads, the interview becomes a catalyst to inspire the audience to tackle these questions themselves as the reliability of memory and agency are threatened by Emily's forgetfulness and Frank's insistence that we are the masters of our actions.
Taken at face value, hearing the hardships the Gulicks face in their neighborhood now that they're the parents of a murderer is fascinating, as is listening to their attempts to deny the practically infallible evidence the interviewer attempts to force them to address, but can become repetitive and uninteresting.
The truly enthralling aspect of the writing comes from the implications of their verbal blunders: stories are retold with slight details altered, each parent has a different version of events, sentences are forgotten and abandoned midway through and sons are confused with each other in baby pictures. And despite feeling like these people are idiots, the audience is left wondering if we could trust our own memories and actions if faced with similarly horrific truths; would we fall into the same trap of denial because our son "looked us in the eye" and swore his innocence?
Katherine James and Alan Blumfield masterfully portray the Gulicks. The work they put into building these two characters is substantial and readily apparent on the stage. James' Emily and Blumfield's Frank feel like real, lived in people, with their own quirks, and most importantly, they are easily believable as a couple who have been married for decades. Their chemistry is electric, and they played so well off each other, it's almost impossible to describe one without including the other.
Along with the story, the set design by Sam Gold appears simple, but is so much more complex. Two armchairs, a table, a projector screen, two cameras and a handful of scattered televisions are all that adorn the stage. Yet, one TV shows a close-up on Emily's face, live from one of the cameras, and the same is done for Frank on another screen with a different camera, one on each side of the stage, framing the action.
The projector screen, upstage of the actors, is used to show family photos as well as violence in the world and previously filmed shots of the crime scene. Visually stunning on the surface, a deeper look shows the Gulicks trapped on all sides in a triangle of media coverage, unable to escape figuratively as much as physically.
The hand of director Mike Peebler is noticeable in all aspects of the production, from the set design to the movements of his actors, all in service of the vision he obviously had, and skillfully executed, for this play.
After a short intermission, the evening is concluded with a panel discussion with the cast and director (and in the case of opening night, the playwright herself). I recommend staying for this part of the night; after the highly cerebral nature of the production, the panel feels a bit like a class discussion, where one can compare their interpretation with those of other audience members and the creative team behind everything. It's like a cup of coffee after a heavy dinner and light appetizer; the perfect way to round out the evening.
"Tone Clusters" runs through Oct. 12 at the Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd, Topanga. For information or tickets, call 310-455-2322 or visit www.theatricum.com.