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Let’s start with what’s terrific about the rarity Arena Stage is serving up in Sophie Treadwell’s Intimations for Saxophone—a “lost” play from the author of the stark Machine Age chronicle Machinal, now rescued from archival obscurity by onetime Arena dramaturg Michael Kinghorn and given a showy premiere helmed by cult favorite director Anne Bogart.
There’s the charcoal-and-tempera texture of Bogart’s production, for one thing: Treadwell’s Jazz Age New York looks so angular-shadowy, so sinuous and saturated with color it might have been inspired by a Kirchner street scene. James Schuette’s feathered and beaded flapper costumes and Barney O’Hanlon’s jittery dance sequences bring the ’20s roaring back to life—those frenetic Charlestoners seem constantly in danger of crashing into one another as they career around corners and swing away to find new partners, but somehow no one loses a step, and everyone always winds up paired off. And Christopher Akerlind lights the whole business so moodily that it seems a desperately glamorous era indeed.
Bogart’s signature style has a certain fascination, too. Co-founder of the ensemble-based, movement-steeped, improvisationally alert SITI Company, she’s assembled a core troupe known for its confidence with rhythm and gesture, its sheer physical presence, and its ability to commit to theatrical visions that many an actor might feel self-conscious about. And for the expressionist eccentricities of Intimations, Bogart’s approach certainly seems apt. (Expressionism? Yeah, you know—that style that tries to make reality seem more subjective than, well, real. Think Ally McBeal with some actual sophistication.)
The best moments in Arena’s production, in fact, have to do with movement and suggestion and mood, rather than with the specifics of Treadwell’s watery story. Speakeasy patrons saunter among cafe tables, settling down in opposing ranks of men and women to begin their jaundiced assessments of one another; an ocean liner maneuvers majestically out of harbor, carrying a fabulously shallow host of passengers; a gossipy society circles Neil Patel’s sleek dance-floor set, stepping up one by one to RKO-style mikes to dissect the impending nuptials of the heiress Lily Laird and her aimless mama’s boy. All of this, and more, is accomplished with an invention, an economy, a deftness that bespeak a profound understanding of what makes theater theatrical.
The play itself, though—not much excitement there. While you’ve got to give Treadwell credit for nerve—a rich woman’s existential crisis would have been a novel enough subject for the Broadway of her day, and part of what makes Intimations play so oddly is its commitment to the fever-dreamy techniques of expressionism—there’s not much in the story of Lily’s search for self that’ll seem bold nowadays. You’ll need to remember your theatrical archaeologist’s hat if you’re to find anything like excitement in the story.
Or you’ll need to focus on what Bogart does with it. Her style, for instance—it’s not just one style. As Lily begins to shake off the social conventions that threaten to smother her, the expected behaviors that have kept her from finding her authentic self, rhythms and gestures begin to shade toward naturalism, and some of the nightmare leaches out of Darron L. West’s soundscape. It’s not a dramatic shift—that would seem insultingly pat, an unsubtle director’s too-earnest device—but it’s there, a graceful underscoring of the notion that a life in conformist self-denial is a life in hell, and that the road toward fulfillment can be a road that leads to less surreal territory.
Performances are largely quite fine, with local actors blending seamlessly into an ensemble that includes several of Bogart’s SITI regulars. Susan Hightower bustles officiously and amusingly about as a gorgon of a mother-in-law; Makela Spielman and Shawn Fagan bicker entertainingly as Millie and Billy, two clubgoing friends of Karron Graves’ Lily and her feckless suitor—whose name, believe it or not, is Gilly. He’s played by choreographer O’Hanlon, one of the SITI corps, and he’s one of the weak links; Gilly’s such a thoroughly dislikable namby that you never imagine he’ll be able to hold on to Lily—which robs the show of some tension.
Graves makes an interestingly squirrelly Lily, though, sweet and seemingly intelligent and somehow reluctant to cast off her dead-weight fella, always endearing and increasingly interesting as she finds her feet. But the play’s stakes never get any higher than her self-discovery—and sadly enough, Treadwell somehow never manages to make that seem like much to get exercised about.
What is exciting, at least for anyone who cares about Arena Stage and its place in the local and national theater pantheon, is the simple implication of Intimations: This is the kind of show few companies could manage to stage at all, the kind fewer still would ever attempt. Arena and the other major regionals were born to make room for excavations like this one, to give directors like Bogart the space and the time and the budget to take first-class stabs at scripts too uncertain for commercial productions. It may not be a triumph, but it was a glorious risk to take—and that, for a house with Arena’s pedigree, is one very real definition of success.CP