Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


2.03.2011

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With its astronomic stakes, operatic violence, and cinematic flourishes, Corktown is in essence a mob movie played out on the Purple Rose Theatre stage. Yet the world-premiere production of this Michael Brian Ogden script is notable for its complex and engaging performances as well as its innovative application of live-theater magic to the genre. Director Guy Sanville plays on viewers' familiarity with these brutal life-and-death stories while simultaneously reveling in the novelty of bringing an audience so close to something so dangerous and — in most cases — foreign.

The play is set in the Detroit apartment of Joey (Matthew David), an enforcer for the Irish mob. Set designer Bartley H. Bauer provides an ominous letterbox view of a remodeled-over domicile in a shabby building; even the water damage tainting its posh faux-finish paint job has a sinister quality. The tone is borne out in the terrible scope of Danna Segrest's properties, which quickly spell out Joey's exact role in the organization — in polite company, he might be called a "cleaner." In the disarming opening scene, Joey and longtime friend and colleague Laurence (Ogden) casually talk shop, quickly submerging the viewer into a world of unspeakable violence that's accepted as strictly business. The juxtaposition of their humdrum middle-management world view with the carnage in which they are steeped (further contrasted by the relatively pristine white coveralls of Christianne Myers's costume design) is a terrific entry point for a production insistent that gangland-style executions must coexist with basic human connection.

It's clear almost from the outset that Joey no longer has the stomach for his occupation, but the character is thrown for a further loop by the introduction of Jenny (Stacie Hadgikosti), an accidental monkey wrench. Accomplishing believable special effects onstage — without the benefit of quick cuts or multiple takes — is an admirable feat, and the specifics of Hadgikosti's entrance prepare the viewer for some impressive and unreservedly grisly work. The characters' anti–meet cute is quickly followed by physical grappling, logical reasoning, and emotional investing that only serve to deepen Joey's larger moral dilemma. Even in the face of his waffling and her rarely broken stoicism, the chemistry between David and Hadgikosti gives their story a believable arc with an edge of urgency.

Following the tone of the script, Sanville and his cast make the characters' struggles feel familiar, but not quite real. There's a heightened sensibility to match the heightened stakes, especially in the character of Cobb; Tom Whalen's take on the boss man of legend elevates him to an inhuman, unhinged sadist with a charming lilt. Lines are clearly drawn between good guys who do bad things and bad guys who do worse things, and the compulsion to root for redemption is strong. Further indulgences into the play's film influences are evident in the other production elements, most notably Quintessa Gallinat's soundtrack, whose swaggering pre-show and intermission music raises mob life to unsustainable heights of cool. Enhanced by Daniel C. Walker's almost tactile lighting, the show engages in a few extended, slow-motion fight scenes; such sequences further play up movie clich├ęs all while showcasing the technical difficulty of enacting them live.

The script unfolds more or less as a viewer might expect; Ogden doesn't seem interested in subverting the form so much as lovingly subscribing to it. However, Corktown's palpable eagerness to live up to and even exceed the standards of a popular film genre make it likable for accomplishing just that. The gruesome and tragic vision of this production delivers on its promise to tell a pulpy but delectable story; viewers can find intellectual stimulation in the play's comparisons to film, or simply bask in a well-spun and eminently compelling tale of a good bad guy.

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