THE NORMAL HEART

Posted: January 30, 2014 in Uncategorized

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Well, this review probably won’t win me any friends, but here goes. Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s revival of the 1985 off-Broadway hit, “The Normal Heart,” though good and important, still leaves a lot to be desired.

The play takes place during the beginning of the AIDS crisis, 1981, before the epidemic had become known to the mainstream masses. The show opens in Doctor Brookner’s office, (played by Amy Thone), with emaciated, young gay men covered in lesions, worried that they have become afflicted with the still unknown disease that was invading their community.

The feisty, wheelchair bound doctor believes that the illness is spread through close sexual contact, and she urges “Ned” (played by Greg Lyle Newton) to do what he can to call attention to the problem and to encourage gay men to start practicing abstinence.

Realizing the preposterousness of such a notion as to stop gay men from having sex, Ned tries to raise awareness in the public with whatever means he can, via the media, politicians, and by seeking the support of his millionaire brother, “Ben,” (played by Rob Burgess), to help him start an organization that would work to get the word out.

In the mean time, he meets and falls in love with “Felix”, (played by Andrew Russell), a style reporter for the “New York Times,” and begins to experience, for the first time, true love.

Without getting into too much more detail, suffice it to say that Ned’s tactics aren’t always appreciated, and the play becomes more and more an issue about how best to educate the masses: does it require in-your-face aggressive campaigning, or would a more subtle approach produce the best results?

In the meantime, the numbers of the dead keep rising while the government does nothing to stop it.

Almost 30 years later, the play is still pertinent, but I don’t think it packs as big a punch as it did when it first came out in 1985. And that’s unfortunate, because I think it still could. Unfortunately, director, Sheila Daniels, didn’t really know how to update the play, to bring it to life for a new generation and a wider audience that has been (and still is being) afflicted with the disease. Essentially, what she gave us was a period piece. In other words, I felt that this production could have been the same production that was presented in New York back in 1985. The set was bare, the mood was dark, the characters were stereotyped, and really, the play stays too much on the political level rather than focusing on the human drama, the interaction between individuals. (This last criticism, of course, is a critique of the playwright, Larry Kramer, rather than the director).

But I wasn’t impressed with the staging. There was so much more that could have been brought to the show by utilizing the stages technical equipment. For instance, why use banners when we have digital projectors?! Why not incorporate advances that have been made in the treatment of AIDS since the time the play was first written? Why not bring in slides and video that contextualizes the AIDS crisis as it has played out in Africa and the rest of the developing world?  Why not be brave and re-conceptualize the original script with daring staging.

Instead, what we got was a recipe that always yields the same dish, delicious and meaty, but still nothing new.  I guess I just wanted to see a re-visioning of the play and of the AIDS crisis as it has evolved over the past 30 years from a director who refuses to be a slave to the text. (And yes, I know people will take issue with me on that, but I will always contend that the playwright does not have the last word and is not the dictator of a show).

This said, there were some good performances, and I think one of the strongest was given by Rob Burgess who played the brother. He was honest, believable, and spot on in his portrayal.

The main character, Ned, was also pretty good, but he tended to stay on one level the whole time; of course, that might be just because of the way the character is written; and also, sometimes his enunciation wasn’t very clear, making it hard to understand him at times.

But over all, it was a good ensemble. However, the technical execution was lackluster. The set was bare and merely functional. The lighting remained dark and somber, and I question the use of Pink Floyd’s, “The Wall” for all the musical interludes, even though I do like that album. To me, this was a one note production – not bad, just not riveting, and definitely not imaginative.

Note to Seattle directors: Don’t be afraid to take chances and approach things differently. Theatre is a not a boxed recipe to follow; it’s a soufflé to add to, to change, and with which to make something new. Read your dramatic theory books and question what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you can do it differently.

“The Normal Heart” plays through February 15th at the Erickson Theatre Off Broadway 1524 Harvard Ave.  For tickets and info, visit http://www.strawshop.org or call 1-800-838-3006.

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