Live Bait Theater


Big Game Theater

It’s hard to imagine the time when theater didn’t play second fiddle to movies. Theater must have been more important then. Talented playwrights were respected, and the quality of their writing reflects this–it’s as if playwrights knew exactly how carefully their words would be judged. Maybe it’s the almost tyrannical domination of film, or maybe it’s just something inherent in our prefab, disposable society that has changed things. But after seeing excellent performances of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, written in the 1920s, and Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, written in 1891, I’m feeling kind of awestruck, the way you do when you enter an old building, shake your head, and say, “They just don’t build ’em like they used to.”

Anna Christie and Spring Awakening are about sex. They examine how human behavior is governed by society and how society can be terribly cruel about sexuality. Spring Awakening occurs in a small town in 19th-century Germany. Anna Christie takes place in the shipyards of Boston and New York. The settings and characters are worlds apart, and the atmospheres the two plays evoke are completely different. But both are damn good works. And Live Bait’s production of Anna Christie is truly powerful theater, an engrossing, haunting foray into an underworld of prostitutes, sailors, and alcoholics.

Anna Christie was thrown into prostitution by fate and lifted out of it by the same means. Her father, a drunken old Swedish sailor named Chris Christopherson, abandoned her at birth. When her mother died, Chris insisted that the girl be brought up on her cousin’s farm in Minnesota, convinced that a sailor’s world was cruel, evil, and no place for a lady. When Anna was 16 her farmer cousin raped her. She ran to Saint Paul, where she became a nanny and men continued to take advantage of her. Slowly she fell into prostitution.

Chris knows nothing of this. He believes his daughter is a respectable girl, a governess in a nice home. When the play opens, he receives a letter from Anna saying she’s coming to live with him. She shows up that same day, in heavy makeup and a cheap hooker’s dress. Chris has known hookers all his life, but he can’t see that his daughter’s become one. He believes she’s pure and good, and Anna plays along.

She goes to live with him on a coal barge, and slowly the sea begins to transform her. She becomes pure and good. “It makes me feel clean out here,” she says of the sea’s fog. “As if I’d just taken a bath.” The sea, however, is a devilish character. That foggy night–in one of the best scenes ever written for the stage–the sea spews a man onto the deck of the barge: Mat Burke, a burly Irish sailor, the sole survivor of a shipwreck not far off. “Is it dreaming I am?” Mat asks when he sees tall, blond Anna. And to Anna Mat seems a figment of her imagination, a dripping wet merman who is a charming elf one moment and a foulmouthed braggart the next.

In a beautifully ironic moment Mat insults Anna, thinking she’s a sailor’s slut. But fate has given Anna a new station in life: she is now the captain’s daughter. His insults burn her because they’re so close to the truth, but Mat perceives her anger as a sign of modesty and virtue. Thinking he’s met the only pure woman he’ll ever know, he falls madly in love.

Anna Christie is the kind of play that can give a talented actor an opportunity to shine. Doug Spinuzza and Catherine Evans are brilliant as Mat and Anna, wringing out the subtleties of the changes in their characters and the insecurities of their love. Jordan Teplitz plays a heart-wrenching Chris, full of melancholy for his past and false hope for his daughter’s future. When the truth about Anna’s past is revealed, it’s as if the sea has come crashing in, threatening to destroy them all.

Sharon Evans has directed a masterpiece. It’s rare to see a play so well staged, with ample attention given to every detail. Even the supporting roles–with Maripat Donovan as Marthy Owens and Jo Webster as Johnny and “ol’ devil sea”–are performed exceedingly well. Thomas Hase’s lighting design and the visual effects created by Evans, Hase, and Webster capture the haunting allure of the sea, underscoring O’Neill’s vision and even making up for some of the final act’s dramatic shortcomings.

Sex was admittedly a personal obsession for German playwright Frank Wedekind. In Spring Awakening he explored what happens when an intelligent, strong-willed pubescent male dares to challenge the strict sexual mores of 19th-century Germany. The ideas put forth in this play were so shocking it was not produced until 1898, and then the more shocking scenes were censored by the authorities.

One hundred years later Spring Awakening remains an intellectually powerful and thought-provoking play, although it’s dry in a very German way. Like Bertolt Brecht, Wedekind creates an emotional distance between the audience and the action, with the intent of forcing the audience to think about the story. Director David Cromer respects this distance and lets the play unfold before us in an almost scientific way. The scenes accumulate to create a chilling world, disturbing in its harsh insensitivity to human nature.

This is a top-notch production. Annabel Armour’s translation of the sometimes chaotic and pompous script is fresh and clear. The cast turn in strong performances overall; Jeffrey Lieber as Moritz Stiefel and Natasha Lowe as Ilse and the Figure in Disguise are particularly engrossing. Often the difference between a so-so show and a good one lies in the technical design and support. Jane Galt’s set, Tom Bell’s music and sound design, Chris Fracaro’s lighting, and Jennifer Seiler’s costumes combine to make this one very good show.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.