November 14, 2006

Theater Reviews -Translating novels to stage: ‘The Chosen’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

The Chosen: Photo by Harlan Taylor Peter Stadlen, Adam Green and Bernard Burak Sheredy in Actors Theatre’s “The Chosen.”I wasn’t sure what to expect from the advance description of “The Chosen.” A “heartwarming story” of a “friendship between two boys” who “learn important life lessons” didn’t especially pique my interest. But as one of the play’s wise characters says, “Things are not always what they seem.” “The Chosen” is informative and multi-faceted, with elements of both comedy and drama. Much like the Hebrew language itself, the play unfolds as layers within layers: It’s ostensibly about two Jewish boys (Danny and Reuven) from different sects, and another layer is the story of their powerful fathers. In a sense, the relationship of these two men (who never directly interact but communicate only through their sons), and their divergent views on Judaism, provide the big picture — and the play’s real conflict.Yet, in another sense, “The Chosen” is Reuven’s story. Matt Seidman narrates as the adult Reuven, breaking the proscenium to address the audience directly. This meta-narrative sometimes complements, and other times competes with the action. Here it makes this play one that will hold up under repeated viewings. Adding to the complexity, as Reuven contemplates his childhood, Seidman slips into other roles, such as the boys’ baseball coach. Seidman floats like a ghost through his memories that unfold onstage, striking the perfect balance between running the show and letting the show run him. The story begins in 1940s Brooklyn, when Reuven Malter (Adam Green) meets Danny Saunders (Peter Stadlen) on the baseball diamond. Danny, a strictly raised Hasidic Jew, is thought to be too much of a bookworm for baseball, but he outperforms everyone. Through their intense sports rivalry (which lands Reuven in the hospital), the two develop a grudging mutual respect. This quickly turns to an inseparable friendship when they learn they share a love of knowledge and intense curiosity about burgeoning modern ideas, such as Freudian psychology and symbolic logic.Gradually the boys’ fathers begin to dominate not only the story, but the boys’ lives — especially Danny’s father, Reb Saunders, masterfully played by Bernard Burak Sheredy. To his flock, Reb is the alpha male, a seemingly cold-hearted Hasidic rabbi who has chosen Danny to follow in his footsteps and one day assume leadership. Danny thirsts for forbidden secular knowledge, and wants to become a psychotherapist.Reuven’s father (Peter Kybart), an Orthodox intellectual, is the antithesis of Danny’s. He’s warm and open-minded and fosters communication with his son. Kybart, who appeared in Spike Lee’s “Inside Man,” is not just an actor playing a role. He simply is Reuven’s father. Green and Stadlen bring just the right flavor of youthful and nerdy intelligence to their roles. Accents were flawless all around. Green’s accent was especially impeccable, thanks to dialect coach Don Wadsworth. Wendy Goldberg’s direction achieves intimacy even when two conversations occur simultaneously. “The Chosen” is packed with enlightenment on Jewish perspectives, but its themes are universal — being a friend, living life fully and honoring one’s heritage. Bravissimo!Meanwhile, Clarksville Little Theatre presents “To Kill a Mockingbird,” adapted from Harper Lee’s novel. Its weighty subject (Southern bigotry) is especially trying for child actors, but the CLT troupe does a yeoman’s job. As in “The Chosen,” an adult narrates pivotal childhood memories. Atticus Finch (Bob Zielinski) defends Tom Robinson (Adam Pepper), an African-American accused of raping the daughter of redneck Tom Ewell (convincingly played by Brian Dubois). Finch’s daughter, Scout (Cate Payne), matures through watching the trial and its consequences.Payne does a fine job with her difficult role. The other two children (Bradley Geary as Scout’s brother, and Kenny Harris as Scout’s “boyfriend”) give strong performances as well. Mariah Oberhausen is a joy as Calpurnia, the Finches’ caretaker.With better blocking, the actors could have appeared more at ease and the pace may not have been as leaden. As a further suggestion, the adult narrator might move throughout the scenes (as the adult Reuven does in “The Chosen”), thereby vitalizing the rather wooden narrative. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com