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 Trustus Theatre's Ambitious “The Velvet Weapon Falls A Bit Short

Review by James Harley 

The annual Trustus Playwrights’ Festival is always a hit-or-miss proposition, with the theatre courageously taking risks in order to live up to its mission of bringing cutting edge work to Columbia. Often the plays presented are interesting to read, but as untested entities their manifestation on stage is uncertain, and sometimes these two distinct aspects simply don’t mesh well when brought together for the first time. Such is the case with this year’s festival winner “The Velvet Weapon,” by playwright Deborah Brevoort.

“The Velvet Weapon” is a combination of philosophy and farce, a comedy that is intended to draw parallels between the peaceful Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 and a fictional artistic revolution in a professional theatre. The story is set in an unnamed country during the performance of a play by the National Theatre, under the direction of the theatre’s pompous manager. Midway through the play, the audience voices its disapproval of the performance, taking the stage and demanding that another production more in line with their aesthetic sensibility be presented instead. They elect to see “The Velvet Weapon,” a fairy tale by Winston, a playwright of questionable skill. The government is called into action, first via the police force in order to keep the uprising civil and then as the ruling party to restructure the National Theatre and cater to the will of the people. The artistic revolution in the theatre is meant to mirror the political revolution in Czechoslovakia.

The concept is intellectually ambitious, but its manifestation leans toward gratuitous silliness. Not that the farcical nature is bad, it simply loses its impact on an average audience based on two essential problems. First, to fully appreciate the metaphorical nature of the events on stage, one must be reasonably knowledgeable of the actual Velvet Revolution, an event not deeply embedded in the American psyche. In other words, full enjoyment requires some research before seeing the show. Secondly, a huge percentage of the humor is of the “inside joke” variety relating specifically to the theatre community. The backstage drama, divas, and production issues may hilariously appeal to those with theatre experience, but in many cases go right over the heads of the audience, garnering a few chuckles at best. The result of these limitations is that the production loses much of its philosophical value and becomes full-on farce.

As for the physical implementation of the farce, the cast does a fairly good job in carrying their characters over the top. G. Scott Wild is appropriately flamboyant as Monsiuer Le Directeur, and Hunter Boyle is solid, adept and luminous as the egomaniacal actor Pavel, whose choices were interesting. Scott Herr as Winston puts forth a confident front while still capturing the essence of an inexperienced dreamer, while Libby Campbell-Turner embodies the playwright’s overbearing mother. Katrina Blanding and Katie Mixon battle it out as competing actresses seeking as much attention as they can find, and John Edward Ford adds a touch of realism as the grumpy stage manager.

While all of the above have clearly chiseled roles which they maintain throughout, it is actually the “ensemble” performers – Raia Jane Hirsch and John Taylor Kearns – who steal the show, with Hirsch playing five distinct characters while Kearns is promoted to higher government positions with almost every appearance. Both contribute substantially to the farcical nature of the comedy.

On the technical side, the location of the action within a theatre requires a stage within a stage, a challenge not quite adequately met by designer Jimmy Wall. While aesthetically acceptable, the jutting nature of the onstage stage creates significant sight-line problems for those seated in the left side of the house in the first few rows. If you do reserve tickets, be sure to take this into account and request seating in other areas.

Though there’s plenty of fun and humor simply within the over the top characters’ behavior and in the bits of audience participation, those most likely to enjoy “The Velvet Weapon” are knowledgeable history buffs and theatre practitioners. It simply isn’t a show for everyone. Also, be aware that it runs a bit long (about 2.5 hours) and contains extended near-nudity (bra and panties).

“The Velvet Weapon” runs through August 16 at Trustus Theatre on Lady Street. For more information visit our Press Releases page. For reservations call the Trustus box office at 254-9732.

A review of “The Velvet Weapon” by Jasper magazine Literary Arts Editor Ed Madden is also available at the Jasper Blog site.











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