In almost complete contrast to the lavish period trappings of The Rivals at Kings County Shakespeare, Handcart Ensemble's recent production of Honoré De Balzac's The Wild Ass's Skin (La Peau de Chagrin) was spare to the point of austerity. Thus freed from the ponderous physical embellishments many feel are essential to the mounting of a period piece, Handcart's production flew higher and faster because the heaviest pieces of baggage it carried were also the most important: intelligence, passion and creativity.
A magical donkey pelt falls into the hands of the suicidal Valentine, which enables him to receive his heart's desires on demand - with the caveat that his life span shall diminish in proportion to the intensity and volume of his wishes. Entering into this ill-fated bargain, Valentine embarks on an excruciating examination of the nature of happiness.
Handcart utilized a new verse translation written and directed by company artistic director J. Scott Reynolds. Reynolds pulled off a near-impossible task with his script: his verse is not only a marvel of tightly focused emotion, he also managed to create a wealth of external tension from a tale whose conflicts are essentially all internal. In addition, the production not only captured the acute psychological insight and keen sense of irony that are the very soul of Balzac's genius, it also caught that subtle, sophisticated c'est la vie sense of rueful joie de vivre that is rarely encountered in American productions of French-based work.
With no set to speak of, effective costuming (Mireille Enos, doing much with very little) and extraordinary lighting (Tamara Shelp, doing much more with much less), Reynolds conjured up the dark and intriguing, gaslit world of mid-19th-century France merely by allowing the audience to use their imaginations, unobtrusively setting up guideposts along the way with brilliantly stylized movement-based direction (choreography by Enos, another superior contribution) that not only supported his elegant poetry, but also gave his actors the breathing space they needed to bring the tale to haunting, vivid life.
Barrett Ogden, as Valentine, eloquently elucidated the passion of this tortured soul, dominating but never overwhelming with his apparently endless reserves of energy. The other four members of the ensemble tore into their roles with a ferocity that equaled Ogden's, and it was a joy to watch these superb performers feed off each other with the skill and humility of the consummate pro. Christy Summerhays and Erin Treadway each impressed with their markedly different sensuality, as did Kevin Ashworth with his commanding grace and James Mack with his innate ability to present a startlingly different physical and emotional presence with each new character.
Cutting right to the heart of the matter with a simple, smart
theatricality, J. Scott Reynolds and Handcart Ensemble once again
have proved that there is no substitute for substance, with or
without the tasty icing of a richly appointed production. When
invention is applied to the service of the text and performers
as exemplified here, less is indeed more.
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Copyright 2000 Doug DeVita