For those who work in theater, one of the hardest decisions is play selection. Theaters love to do new work, but many theatergoers are more apt to attend a show with name recognition – either a show or a playwright they know. Theaters need audiences, but get tired of doing the same types of shows.
But what if you could take one of these older works and completely transform it? Get the audience in the door on name recognition, then give them the show they were planning to see in a way they’ve never seen it (or even thought of it) before – but without changing the script (which is a copyright issue, of course?) You’ve got a happy audience, a happy theater company, and you’re not just putting on a show. You’re making art.
Director Patrick White has created a work of art with his production of An Inspector Calls at Schenectady Civic Players.
Framed as a theater group putting on a show on an empty stage in 1945, an inspector (Angelique Powell) shows up at Mr. and Mrs. Birling’s (Emmett Ferris, Kim Wafer) home on the day they’re celebrating their daughter Sheila’s (Josie Smith) engagement to Gerald (JR Richards.) The inspector tells them a young woman (Carmen Lookshire) committed suicide, then through a pointed interrogation, makes them realize they each had a connection with her – and that they may be responsible for her death.
The empty stage, first, is a stroke of genius. This is a drawing room mystery, right? Wrong. The show could be anywhere, at any time. There are very few props or set pieces; the actors – and the utterly lush and gorgeous period costumes by Beth Ruman – are the centerpiece here, with no distractions. White’s stage pictures, as always, are perfection – I’m always a fan, but I think this is the first time they’ve taken my breath away. Additionally, the flashback scenes are pure poetry.
White has put together a strong cast for the piece, bringing together both new and familiar actors to the SCP stage in nontraditional casting. Powell, whose strength on stage is rivaled by few in the area, is inspired as the inspector; her fire and passion to bring justice to the young victim seem as innate to her as breathing. Wafer is chillingly cold and calculating as the matriarch of the family; Marquis Heath, whose performances always bring me joy, is perfect as the disaffected Birling son. Lookshire, whose role is largely in flashbacks (and three beautiful songs – what a voice!) stole the show without a single word of her own, haunting the shadows in her icy blue dress, reminding the family of their misdeeds.
The question of how to keep theater fresh in a world of diminishing audiences is a constant one. Go watch this show for the answer. This is how to put on a performance that everyone will want to see and everyone will be enriched having seen, where the line between new and old play is so blurred it might as well not be there.
“An Inspector Calls,” Schenectady Civic Players, 12 South Church Street, Schenectady; through February 4; $20; Run time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with a 20-minute intermission; (518) 382-2081; civicplayers.org