A theatre company presents a maelstrom of conflicting possibilities and dilemmas.
Actors who have developed that security and trust that comes from recognizing each other’s strengths and needs, while respecting one another’s talent and process, simultaneously provide each other with the height and freedom to dare, as well as the net to guarantee that a fall does not equate to failure.
But a company, unless open to the use of the occasional “guest artist,” also can limit the potential of their productions while imposing daunting predicaments in casting, especially when disparities exist in levels of abilities and craft.
A company, to maximize potentials, generally needs a unifying vision; most often in the form of an artistic director, whose creative philosophy finds expression in the troupe’s essential makeup and extends into the choice of projects.
Think Tim Robbins and The Actors’ Gang, Ron Sossi and the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Jay McAdams and the 24TH Street Theatre.
Theatre Unleashed, over the nine years of its existence, has shown a boldness and an intelligence in the choosing of its productions and its willingness to push its own envelope.
The current presentation, Of Mice and Men, reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of this company.
Adapted and directed by Aaron Lyons from author John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella, the story should be familiar to anyone who hasn’t been living at the bottom of a bog for the past seven decades.
Originally staged by director George S. Kaufman, the same year as its publication, Broderick Crawford, (familiar to the dwindling hordes of “baby boomers” from the old Black and White television series Highway Patrol and for his award-winning turn as Willie Stark (All the King’s Men), was the first actor to embody the character of Lennie.
When that production moved to Los Angeles, Crawford was replaced by Lon Chaney, Jr., who would go on to do the initial film version in 1939, with Burgess Meredith as perhaps the most enduring George.
Later that year the duo of Lennie and George would find themselves parodied as Looney Tunes’ cartoon characters.
Other pairings would follow, some a tad incongruous, such as the 1974 duo of Kevin Conway as George and James Earl Jones as Lennie.
Two versions would make their way to television. In 1968 George Segal would star as George with British stage actor Nicol Williamson, oddly cast as Lennie.
1981 would offer primetime audiences a reworking with Randy Quaid as Lennie, and Robert Blake as George.
Gary Sinise and John Malkovich would appear in a 1980 stage adaptation of the work for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which would make it to the big screen as a film in 1992.
The story of the slight and cerebral George and his companion the huge and physically-abled Lennie is the soul of Steinbeck’s story, and one that has its roots in the ancient myths of the centaurs; the Intellect that foolishly believes it has command of the primal force upon which it travels. The Intellect believes it guides that force, taken in by the self-woven veneer of dominance and, to use a term a tad heavy with Judeo-Christian intimation, free will.
Steinbeck’s tale is fraught with illusion of dominance.
The characters that fill its pages believe themselves to have control over their lives, their destinies, their animals, the cut of the cards, the land, their wives, their bodies, their corners of the barn, their sweat, and themselves. But Steinbeck seems to deny that fallacy of humanity. The failing, as he seems to indicate, is our inability to understand the needs and hopes of one another and ourselves.
Of Mice and Men is dense with dreams all of which come to nothing, with each character’s dreams dying in the rage and fury of their own ignorance.
I know the director of this production. I know him to be an intelligent and insightful artist, and both those qualities are apparent in this presentation; but there is a feeling that the concept escaped the execution.
The cast is overall a talented one, who manage to capture the frail souls that Steinbeck depicts with such sorrowful sincerity. David Caprita as the one-handed, aging handyman Candy, Jim Martyka as Slim, the mule-skinning “Prince of the hands,” Ross Shaw as Whit, Amanda Rae Troisi in the role of Curley’s nameless wife, and especially Twon Pope as the bitter and isolated Crooks; all turn in excellent performances.
Lyons manages to guide his sizable cast and unfolding morality tale skillfully about the challenging confines of the venue.
The employment of Shane Howard for continuous background music on stage is, like the show itself, a solid concept that needed to be fitted to the limitations of the staging, but unfortunately it butts against those limits more often than not.
The central weakness of the production is sadly, the central hub of the narrative itself, the relationship between George and Lennie.
If this relationship is executed adroitly, all the rest of the narrative satellites, which are held in its orbit, can fend for themselves.
If it’s not…well….
Spencer Cantrell is a serviceable George. The trouble is he lacks a Lennie.
Regretfully Gregory Crafts, while he certainly has the brawn of Lennie, cannot manifest the soul of the innocent giant.
I’m afraid one must take the director to task for this.
The director needed to have this critical role secured, if no other, with an actor who could rise to the demands of the part, and he did not.
Perhaps he believed he could bring it out of the young Mr. Crafts, if so he was either wrong or he failed.
And all his other efforts, despite their merits, and the efforts of his cast, amount to little.
It is always a pity when failure stems from sincere artistic ambition, and this is such a case.
♦ ♦ ♦
Last weekend for: Of Mice and Men
Presented by Theatre Unleashed
Venue: The Belfry Stage, Upstairs @ The Crown
Address: 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood, CA 91602
Box Office Phone: 1 (818) 849-4039
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