Directed by Jac Alder
Set Design – Edward Gordon Craig
Costume Design – Bruce Richard Coleman
Lighting Design – Lisa Miller
Sound Design – John Flores
Izzy – Jenna Anderson
Douglas – Jeff Burleson
Leonard – Mark Fickert
Kate – Janielle Kastner
Martin – Clay Wheeler
Photo Credit: Jeffrey Schmidt
Reviewed Performance 4/28/2014
Reviewed by Rachel Elizabeth Khoriander, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
One of the special challenges for theatres-in-the-round is staging a show such that audience members can connect with each character, while simultaneously maintaining the overall energy of the show. This challenge is expertly met in Theatre Three's production of Seminar. While actors do occasionally wander out of some audience members' sight line, such moments are brief and don’t impede the trajectory of the plot. More important is that the playwright has crafted a compelling, lithe, pithy script and characters, and Jac Alder utilizes his considerable staging skill to strongly and directly engage his audience. Not only are Seminar's actors masters of acting “through their back,” continuing to emote even while their backs are turned to the audience, but Alder also staggers them and keeps them moving, resulting in a fast-paced story that plays to the entire audience.
And what do we see? Quite a lot. Seminar is the brain-child of accomplished playwright, screenwriter and novelist Theresa Rebeck, for whom the subject matter—writing (and the neuroses and competitive streaks it engenders)—is not too far from home. Seminar is based in New York City and opens with four young writers gathered in an Upper West Side apartment to await the arrival of Leonard (originally played by Alan Rickman in the 2011 Broadway premiere), a titan of the fiction world, whose revered opinion has been secured through the $5,000 fee each has paid him. We have the well-educated, defensive, self-proclaimed feminist Kate who owns the apartment; the opportunistic, lascivious, vixen Izzy; the well-connected, limited, buffoonish Douglas; and the intense, dour, blue-collar Martin. They're all a bit fractious and pretentious in their own special way, and their pretensions and insecurities are exposed and played upon once the condescending, contempt-filled Leonard arrives. A portrait of the internal struggles faced by those who are in the position of cashing in on their artistic prowess, there is meat on these bones but also a great deal of humor.
Mark Fickert's Leonard is bombastic and oozes contempt, but doesn't seem to be as much sadistic as jaded, bored, and (gasp) honest. His patent absorption in the reading process makes his negative responses to the other writers seem more due to tactlessness and inattentiveness than pointed attacks. Fickert's delivery is direct and blunt, and he makes it clear that Leonard is uninterested in investing in the untalented and sees his honesty as a service rather than cruelty. Surprisingly, Fickert's Leonard may just be the perfect teacher. One particularly memorable moment occurs when Leonard stumbles across a truly exceptional piece of student writing, and Fickert’s vocal tone, cadence, and pauses punctuate Leonard’s response with a dynamic mix of humility, fear, and pleasure.
Janiele Kastner’s Kate is fresh and unfussy but not uncalculating. She is, in short, a mess of contradictions but completely aware of them all. In this role, Kastner gives a graceful, moving performance, punctuated by amusing emotional outbursts during which she forgetfully enters the stage twice with an electric mixer on a too-short cord, rants about one of Leonard's many offenses, and stuffs her face with cookie dough, ice cream, and chips. Throughout, Kastner’s gestures and reactions are perfectly timed. The true genius of her performance, however, lies in the gentle way she portrays the mix of kindness and strength ingrained in the character of Kate as all of her ideals are stripped away.
Clay Wheeler depicts Martin as brooding, cranky and, oddly, closest to Leonard in both ability and belligerence. Throughout Seminar, Wheeler’s exceptional, realistic characterization of Martin helps us understand that he is confounded as much by his personal weakness as by the possibilities before him. Wheeler's stricken facial expressions and backtracking movements situate Martin as a painfully truthful, though emotionally obtuse, individual and emphasize Martin's indecision and self-consciousness.
Douglas is sweet but oblivious. Commenting on his own creative genius, Jeff Burleson’s earnest delivery situates Douglas as one who is less purposely pretentious than truly, and perhaps blindly, confident. Burleson manages just the right amount of good humor and clueless, pretentious buffoonery to make Douglas likeable and not cartoonish.
Jenna Anderson, as the nubile Izzy, has perfected the siren strut and sensual hair flip down to an art form. Her character is colorful and a great dissembler, which makes it impossible to underestimate Izzy’s intelligence. Izzy's underlying motivations are easily seen when, during a scene in which Izzy is caught in a lie, Anderson's demeanor abruptly shifts from flirtatious to resolute and matter-of-fact. Anderson's typical deliberate physical posturing distracts from this exploitative nature and shows that most of what Izzy does is scripted to provoke sexual attention in order to accelerate her trajectory. In short, Anderson palpably expresses Izzy's lust for life in every sense of the phrase.
Edward Gordon Craig's set design is minimal, but very effective. Only two locations are necessary to produce Seminar - Kate's apartment where the majority of the action takes place, and Leonard's apartment where the last scene unfolds. Craig furnishes Kate's apartment with attractive but not-so-functional wicker furniture, a collection of what appear to be ancient encyclopedias, and a window looking out to the brick wall of the building next door. Leonard's apartment, on the other hand, is a hodgepodge of souvenirs from foreign ports he has visited, with a platform bed and a desk with a typewriter and lone task light. This set really seems reflective of Leonard's persona—the bohemian with a day job, still living the way he did in his twenties, but with his artistic work and its troubled past front and center.
Lighting, by Lisa Miller, is similarly inspired. Leonard's apartment is mostly dim save for the solitary bright task light illuminating his desk, while Kate's apartment is mostly well-lit. To emphasize dramatic elements, however, the lights fade to darkness and a spotlight appears, adding emotional starkness to these moments.
Costume Designer Bruce Richard Coleman has chosen clothing that match Seminar's characters perfectly. Leonard sports rumpled, faded pants and shirt in a style I would term business/beach-bum casual. It's a look I’ve often seen sported on business people relaxing in Bali for a week, and befits Leonard's world traveler tendencies. Similarly, the flowing lines of Kate's clothing and robe emphasize her grace and fluidity. Izzy and Douglas are both rather fashionable, with Douglas sporting preppy clothing and a hair style emphasizing both Douglas's pretensions and slight goofiness, while Izzy wears form-fitting clothes, bright colors, and soft materials one can only imagine are easily removed. Finally, Martin wears a typical blue-collar uniform of loose jeans and plain T-shirt to emphasize his utilitarian roots and the odds between those and his artistic aspirations.
John Flore’s sound operates as it should—flawlessly with everyone easily heard and understood. In addition, some interesting video projections of scene-related words accompanied by popular music, such as David Bowie's “Fame,” play between scenes and effectively introduce the mood of the next scene while simultaneously working as an excellent distraction from the scene changes.
In its ninety-minute, uninterrupted running time, Seminar goes by quickly, mainly because its serious subject matter is treated lightly with characters exchanging glib barbs. The script may not necessarily contain any terribly original thoughts, but the story is capably told and, paired with astute acting and compelling direction, makes Theatre Three's production a sharp and enjoyable show worth seeing.
2800 Routh Street
Dallas, Texas 75201
Runs through May 18th.
The show may be inappropriate for 12 and under.
Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm. Hooky Matinee is Wednesday, May 7th at 2:00 pm.
There is an additional performance on Saturday, May 17th at 2:30 pm.
Tickets range from $20.00-$50.00, depending on performance date and seating. Senior/student discounts are $3.00 off regular ticket price.
Hooky Matinee prices are $10.00-$15.00, with senior/student discounts at $12.00.
For information, go to www.theatre3dallas.com or call the box office at 214-871-3300.