Talisman Theatre

at the Chicago Cooperative Stage

The Woods, by David Mamet, is a character study of two people who represent the quintessential male and female, and explores how we manage to survive in the dark primordial forest of relationships. Mamet is particularly interested in women’s desire to “nest,” and men’s fear of it. The problem with The Woods is that, in general, Mamet’s perceptions of sexual relationships are a little warped. His characterizations of women suffer acutely from the madonna-whore syndrome. They are sex objects who, at the same time, have a mysterious nurturing quality to them. His men are entrenched in Chicago macho. The characters in The Woods are no exception. The challenge of the piece, then, is for the director and actors to create two interesting characters who can stand as individuals, above the stereotypes set for them, and who can make the action clear within an essentially static situation. Talisman Theatre fails to meet that challenge in its debut production.

Mamet’s Man and Woman are Ruth and Nick. The two of them have come up from the city to spend the weekend in Nick’s cabin by a lake. It is clear from the start that the two have different agendas. Nick has obviously brought a number of women up to the cabin, knowing how Mother Nature brings out the sexual desires of women, for weekend trysts. Ruth is a sexy, fun, flaky toy to him. He puts her down to her face, and she doesn’t seem to notice. Ruth thinks that this weekend is something special. She sees it as their chance to pledge their love for each other, to be lovers in a way that is impossible in the dispassionate city. She gives herself happily to Nick, both physically and spiritually, and asks only that he love her and share what he can of himself.

This conflict of interests comes to a head when Ruth gives Nick an inscribed bracelet as a token of their lasting love. Nick completely freaks out at this. Gradually we come to realize that Nick is not the cynical, uncaring lout he appears to be. He just doesn’t know how to express himself. He is afraid to give, and terrified of commitment. The question that remains is, can these two people lower their walls and connect with each other, or will their individual fears tear them apart?

One symptom of Talisman Theatre’s difficulty with The Woods is that, in this case, we don’t much care about the answer. Actors Patrick DiRenna and Mary Hatch flounder in a sea of confusion. Director Mark Hardiman is completely unfocused. As a result, the play blends into one long scene that leads nowhere.

The most obvious flaw lies in the casting. It’s not so much that either of the actors couldn’t have worked out in a different production. But Hatch and DiRenna have entirely different acting styles. I can see how a director might be intrigued by this. The clash between Ruth and Nick, after all (and perhaps between men and women), is essentially a clash of styles. But Hatch and DiRenna seem to be in two completely different plays. Hatch is broad, overexaggerating her movement and vocal choices. DiRenna is very controlled and withdrawn–so withdrawn, in fact, that much of his dialogue can’t be heard for the mumbling. Although DiRenna’s style allows for more honesty, either could work; but by putting the two side by side, they both wind up looking ludicrous. Hatch seems cartoonish and devoid of any genuine emotion. DiRenna seems nearly catatonic next to Hatch’s blustery, overblown activity. To make matters worse, neither Hatch nor DiRenna pays much attention to the other. Indeed, they seem to have a healthy disdain for one another. Hatch is particularly uninterested in making any physical contact with DiRenna, which is a problem, since the part calls for adoration from her.

The music, composed and performed live by Jerry Spivack, is also indicative of Hardiman’s lack of vision. Spivack sits behind a sheer curtain, the ever-present bard and emotional indicator supreme. There are moments that the music serves to heighten. When Nick talks about his neighbor being carried off by martians, for instance, or during a storm, when Nick’s thoughts begin to rage, the music clues the audience in on the seething undercurrent of tension, and provides textual builds that the actors unfortunately don’t. But most of the time, the music detracts. It just hangs in the air like some random afterthought, along with the rest of the elements of the production.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Aliess Brady.