Opening Weekend of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
By the Waters of Babylon by Robert Schenkkan
This two-person play commissioned by OSF and written for its stars, Catherine Coulson and Armando Duran, has everything: flawless and inspired acting, cogent story, Deep Meaning, well-weaved metaphors, balance, nuance, comic relief, dense but flowing dialog, character transformation, and, well, what did I leave out?
Unfortunately, something is left out, but damn if I or others in the post-show crowd could put our fingers on it.
The story is of our two middle-aged protagonists who meet in Catherine’s garden where Arturo comes to work. (Coulson shares first names with her character while “Armando” is apparently Cubanized.) He is a writer who accidently, impulsively, miraculously escaped to Miami. She is a wall flower whose wit and insight have been beaten down, most recently by her now-deceased husband.
Their disappointments and the self-perceived uncleanliness of their souls are revealed in 100 minutes of artfully crafted conversation. The stories match well, and their telling is skillful. Catherine and Arturo alternate focus, but without a heavy-handed ping-ponging trading off of the spotlight.
In the end, Catherine and Armando gave the audience no choice but to stand and cheer for their performances. They were truly magnificent. The complex stories spilled from them without any pretentiousness. The actors even pantomimed naturally and vividly. Their gestures added to the arc and avoided all shadow of over-artiness.
But, while there was the satisfying dramatic change in the characters on stage, there was no dramatic feeling in me. The most exciting moment in my audience experience occurred in the middle of the first act when a man behind me began snoring. My theater partner turned around and smacked the sleeper convincingly with an open play bill. Conflict! Potential danger! Now, that got adrenalin into my bloodstream.
The man was right, though. The play is, unaccountably, unjustifiably, and unfairly a snooze. Could it be that the theme of middle-aged passion just isn’t enough? Is it too too restrained and reasonable to watch? Naw… That’s not it. Was there too much political history? My Blue State companion was annoyed by the easy Bush and Reagan jokes. Naw, again… the political observations were justified.
Perhaps The Waters of Babylon suffers from being too well thought out and having an over collaboration between writer, actors, and director. The OSF background materials on this world premiere tout the care with which Schenkkan, Coulson, and Duran worked with each other and the story. The levels of symbolism, the revelations, the parallel lives are so well constructed that there’s a dullness that only perfection can create. Maybe some imperfection, some on-stage play-bill smacking of the script is needed to invigorate the work.
I don’t know what kind of smack will do it. I do know that I am still searching for the reason I enjoyed the performance, am glad to have seen it, will recommend the play,… but am just not howling in delight.
Ozdachs rating: *** out of *****