Review: The Dragon Play by Shrewd Productions
by Michael Meigs
The Dragon Play confused me as I sat in the front row of the sparsely populated Blue Theatre on opening weekend. That was deliberate on the part of playwright Jenny Connell, abetted by Shrewds director Shannon Grounds.
One is a whimsical creature story of a boy who discovers a magic dragon in the attic and adopts it. The two live in their own little magic world sheltered from the outside and from any intrusion by adults.
The other play is a grim tale of a deeply dysfunctional marriage visited by a stiff-faced former suitor who appears to have every intention of carrying away the wife.
I found it remarkably uncomfortable to be obliged to shift the gears in my suspension of disbelief. That uneasiness pushed me to an annoyed sensitivity. Childhood's droll whimsey failed to please because it was overridden by the dark drama and sharp edges of the other story. Dialogue that I'd normally have happily swallowed sounded false because of the contrast of styles -- particularly the leaden nothings assigned much of the time to Rommel Sulit as he portrayed the working class husband aware that something was going wrong.
But it was Sulit's unnamed character who eventually brought these stories into juxtaposition, with a speech unlike the preceding ones, this time addressed directly to the audience. He began, approximately, "You know, I'm not as stupid as I may seem to be."
For a moment it was almost as if the actor was escaping from the character. Speaking with new weight and coherence, he recounted his first torrid, disturbing encounter with the woman who inexplicably yielded to him and later became his wife.
Details of that encounter, when associated with some of the mystifying earlier chatter in both scenarios, snapped the elements of this coy mystery abruptly into place. If I'd been doctoring this script, I'd probably have tried moving that revelation way up into the first pages to avoid taunting the audience. It might not have worked, of course, but it would have moved the focus from the puzzles of the plot to the consistent depiction of character and emotion.
The Dragon Play is not about Sulit's character or his transformation from dumb dupe to defender of his territory. "The man" functions as a hook for conflict, a plausible fall guy, and a narrator. Connell is instead exploring the dream worlds and bitter emotional disappointments of her women protagonists.
Amelia Turner as the clever, graceful and finally intensely physical dragon girl symbolizes the maturing of an adolescent girl, particularly as she passes from young Xander Slay-Tamkin to Joseph Garlock as the same character several years later. Turner has an electric, devastating speech about the sexual act -- a physical and sexual climax in itself serving at the same time as the climax that seals the link between the two dragon plays.
The other, devastated side of passion is embodied by Liz Fisher, one of my favorites on Austin stages, as "the woman." Fisher burns with resentment, self-exiled into a marriage of inconvenience further burdened with an unseen difficult offspring. "The woman" is fierce with both men and particularly vehement in accusing her former lover, played by Garlock, for disappearing for a decade to roam the world. These two have the simultaneous complicity and distrust of conspirators who've fallen out with one another.
By taking on The Dragon Play director Shannon Grounds and her Shrewd Productions show creative flexibility in programing and considerable ingenuity in dramatic art. The company's most recent production was last November's elaborate staging at the Rollins Theatre, Long Center, of Charles Mee's well-known, successful piece Big Love, directed by Robert Faires. I enjoyed it but didn't review it, for there was plenty of coverage in the press and on-line, due especially to Austin's general admiration of Faires.
In contrast, author of The Dragon Play Jenny Connell is a 2009 graduate of the UT MFA program in pla writing, now resident in Brooklyn. I heard that she and the company worked closely together to shape this piece and to premiere it here in Austin. Michael Lee at KUT did a two-minute audio spot and Georgia Young at austinist.com did an opening-night feature with an interview of the playwright. Lydia Nelson put together two video features. The only review to date has been Ryan E. Johnson's positive piece at examiner.com. [UPDATE: click below to read Robert Faires' positive review of April 12 in the Austin Chronicle.]
The Dragon Play closes this weekend. It deserves serious attention, for this is a gifted cast navigating its way successfully through a script of deep feelings and potential pitfalls. As additional incentives, the Shrewds are partying it up Thursday through Saturday evenings with raffles, special vodka cocktails, a silent auction and opportunities to meet playwright, cast and director.
Hits as of 2015 03 01: 2156
Springdale Rd and Lyons
behind Goodwill warehouse
Austin, TX, 78702