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By Don Nigro

Garland Civic Theatre

Directed by Kyle McClaran
Set Design – Virgil Hollywood
Costume Design – Virgil Hollywood
Light Design – Joshua Hensley
Stage Manager – Katie Ussery

Gillian – Avery Baker
Marcy – Emily Burgardt
Mrs. French – Adgie Lou Davidson
Ruffing – Kyle McClaran
Dolly – Gabi Stewart
Mrs. Ravenscroft – Marilyn B. Twyman

Reviewed Performance: 7/23/2016

Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Garland is awash in early 20th Century theater this month. Garland Summer Musicals is playing Nice Work If You Can Get It, a Broadway musical set in 1927, while Garland Civic Theatre is playing Ravenscroft, a gothic comedy mystery set in 1905. Ravenscroft, by Don Nigro, is one of several lesser-known plays in the GCT season, along with a slate of popular musicals, such as The Adams Family.

Don Nigro is a prolific playwright with hundreds of plays in the library. They’re not blockbusters, but they run the gamut from American history through outlandish stories of strange family happenings. Ravenscroft tells the tale of a murder in the house of a remote English Estate. The local constable arrives to carry out the investigation and quickly discovers that the five ladies of the house are not what they seem.

GCT loves lavish sets. In all the shows I’ve seen there, the stage was awash with color schemes and lighting that created a tableau to immediately catch the eye. Set pieces were ornate and looked to be right out the time period they portrayed and set dressings and props filled the stage with things to study, like an antique store.

Ravenscroft was no different. This eclectic setting screamed old, rich, and eccentric. A living room/library of the Ravenscroft mansion included simple pieces, lounge chairs, loveseat, coffee table, fireplace, interspersed with little round nook tables and a plush red settee, all sitting on lavishly-colored rugs, some hidden in the corners behind plants. Chandeliers hung from the high ceiling along with several tall smoke-stack lights. The busy room was filled with plants and many, many knick-knacks and decorative items, like a large bronze panther next to a chair and a tall artistic painting hanging over the fireplace. Each item looked like it had been discovered in an antique shop and bought with no intent to unify anything. Nothing went together, but the unifying force was the diversity of styles, patterns, and colors. This setting by Virgil Hollywood was the kind of room a visitor could spend time looking at the decorations. GCT is a kind of thrust stage, so the set pieces came right up to the front row and set pieces created a maze for actors to move through and around, allowing a 3-dimensional blocking movement. Get there early, so that there’s time to admire the artistry.

The colors in this set were bedazzling, enhanced by the lighting of Joshua Hensley. I counted light instruments in greens, blues, reds, oranges, and maybe blue-greens, and this rainbow streamed over the colors in the set pieces and decorations to make a luscious palette of atmosphere. The play was dark, since the overall theme was gothic, and some scenes were dim, yet it wasn’t really emotionally, eerily dark, rather more like an old museum.

There was no credit for sound design, but it was a critical part of setting an overall atmosphere. The pre-show filled this space with pieces from movie themes that anticipated the story. I heard Danny Elfman, music from Oz, Mirror-Mirror, Beowulf, and even the Lego Movie. It’s a stroke of genius to choose movie theme music as those are often the most atmospheric musical pieces. None of these pieces are readily-known as popular music, but they set an immediate mood and, combined with the lush visual setting, I was ready for an exciting story. Some of this music was carried into the show, along with a few ominous and eerie music phrases to help build the mystery mood.

The time is 1905. It’s Victorian England. And the costumes were lavish, colorful, full-length, and heavy. It’s winter and, even in the mansions, heating was ineffective then. Even so, Virgil Hollywood complemented his lavish set with an even more ornate set of Victorian costumes that leaned more towards late 1890’s, suggesting this family is stuck in a distant past. The gothic elements popped out of the normal Victorian look like collectibles. It seemed the dress choices reflected the set decorations. A green satin dress with multi-colored stripped waistcoat and black sash, a teal-green, almost beaded, floor-length dress covered by a green cape and a neck wrap in blue satin and black feathers, a suit of loose-fit black pants and over-shirt on an actor with red hair and beard, with a deep purple scarf and large hanging black brooch, these costumes were difficult to describe, but set an immediately eccentric personality tone for each character.

Ravenscroft was directed by Kyle McClaran, whose theatrical vision was all over this design. McClaran has been willing to take chances with extravagant design in all the shows I’ve seen, and probably in all of the 54 shows he’s directed at GCT. I love the way he makes his shows artistic, rather than realistic. Yet he also seems to nail artistic characterizations in each of his actors and did so with this play.

One of the challenges of a director is directing himself. Here McClaran was also the only male character, the lead, and the primary story-teller. I have not seen him act before. He is an extraordinarily gifted actor who not only puts his artistic vision into his role, but plays him so comfortably and naturally that it’s easy to believe he’s making it up as he goes. Investigator Ruffing is assigned to discover the truth in the death of a man who worked on the Ravenscroft Estate. His role is to question the women of the house to determine the truth. Was the victim pushed or did he fall? Was it accident or murder? It seems such an easy task. But Ruffing finds truth is far more complicated and discovers something about himself in the process. McClaran began his character arc as a confident, no-nonsense police investigator who knows one thing – he would find the truth. Like Javert in Les Misérables, Ruffing’s singular focus on the truth was akin to a calling from God. As Ruffing questioned each of the women, he was strong and direct, steering them back from their wild meandering to his questions. But over time, their flights of fancy frustrated and confused him and McClaran allowed Ruffing to devolve into a puddle of escalating outbursts and breakdowns. McClaran seemed to physically shrink his body posture across the scenes, contracting inward as he took on the weight of his task. This subtle change made Ruffing’s fall into confusion and frustration palpable and made him a pathetic character. As this fall occurred, McClaran’s vocal change showed us how Ruffing began to question his commitment and beliefs. The stalwart march towards his calling wavered.

One acting skill I particularly appreciated was McClaran’s decent into drunkenness. It’s often a huge challenge to get this right. Two males of the house had mysteriously fallen down the stairs in drunkenness and this story line put Ruffing into the cross-hairs. As he began to imbibe the wine bottles on the set, McClaran showed a gradual, subtle loss of physical and mental capacity. This was not falling-down funny, though it did add to the unintended comedy. It was a natural incapacity of diminishing skills. This contributed to, but did not create, Ruffing’s pathos. But it is a crucial skill for actors. McClaran gave a fabulous performance!

Marcy is the primary adversary to Ruffing, though one could believe the whole house was the anti-Christ. She is the woman he suspects of murder from the beginning, though her story changes in surprising ways. Emily Burgardt played Marcy with an ever-changing round of avoidance, regret, and confusion as she responded to Ruffing’s questions. As Marcy is the governess, she is straight-laced, slightly more normal than the other women. As a European, Burgardt looks more modern than the rest and holds herself straighter and stronger. Burgardt makes this character entirely believable as she answers questions with her own sincerity, usually confusing Ruffing in the process. As Marcy realizes the implications of a potential arrest with every question, those outcomes become more ominous and this created a roller-coaster of emotions and attitudes for Burgardt. Marcy has secrets and those create opportunities for Burgardt to play with her own subtext. We never got a chance to guess at Marcy’s guilt or innocence as Burgardt kept her on the cusp of both. And she was an equal to McClaran’s investigator at every turn.

Mrs. Ravenscroft was played by Marilyn B. Twyman. The older maven of the house is an elegant lady with ostentatious wealth, who has secrets of her own and confuses Ruffing in her own way, to great hilarity. I might compare her to Lucy (Ball) as she tries desperately to convince Ricky Ricardo of her innocence and her own “ignorance” is so honest it’s hilarious. Twyman’s vocal strength and costume suggested a character who knows her power in this house, though there might be a couple of skeletons in her closets. Twyman committed fully to the eccentricities of “Mum” as she misunderstands most of the questions Ruffing asks, but answers them in ways that make you scratch your head, as does to Ruffing. Her mistaken responses seemed so natural for her that she was lovable for her craziness. But in time, Mrs. Ravenscroft discovers shocking things about her household that drives her to desperation. Twyman allowed these scripted outbursts to flow truthfully so the humor was mixed with pathos and the character was likable in spite of her eccentric behavior.

Gillian is the young Miss Ravenscroft and takes eccentric behavior to a new level. Avery Baker played this young teen girl to perfection as a borderline insane, deeply disturbed girl who may or may not have had a lot to do with the accident. Baker affected a rather glazed look, often staring out across the audience into some faraway place. Her responses as Ruffing questions Gillian were cold and distant, but ranged to extreme and erratic. There’s a lot of confusion around her and the erratic behavior of Gillian affects ruffing enough to throw his scent off of Marcy. Baker also was totally committed to the realities of Gillian and being slightly deranged was easy to believe.

Gabi Stewart played Dolly, the maid, another young girl with deep emotional issues. Dolly is scared of life and everyone around her. There’s almost no time when she looks at someone, or even up away from the floor. She is emotionally contracted in on herself and Stewart did a marvelous job of maintaining this behavior and look throughout the play. At first we saw someone we believed was scared of power, due to her low station in the politics of the house, but Stewart built her change into someone we learned was scared about her own secret revelations. Dolly was the primary comedic foil in this story, though each character had a plethora of moments, and Stewart embodied the persona of Dolly so fully we felt her inner pain as we were laughing at the effects of her hilarious behavior.

Adgie Lou Davidson filled out the cast of Ravenscroft as Mrs. French, the cook, housekeeper, and long-time resident of the Ravenscroft Estate, even before Mrs. Ravenscroft’s arrival. Mrs. French is probably the strongest, most well-adjusted woman of the house and seems to have nothing to worry about as Ruffing questions her. Davidson was dressed in the most gothic dress in the cast, with red hair (matching Ruffing?), and black maid’s hat to go with her long black cloak over a gray skirt and shawl. But she also wore a massive leather belt with parts that hung down to the floor and looked like a stable-hand. Her demeanor was always confidently strong with a dominant violent streak. Mrs. French may have had a dalliance or two with the victim, but apologizes to no one and ensures that Dolly, her employee, and Ruffing, get a full measure of irate attitude. Davidson exploded this power in the second act when all the characters are in-turmoil and showed us a woman who clearly could be suspected of murder.

Garland Civic Theatre has brought a wonderful theater experience to the Granville. The story may seem like an exploration of ancient history, but we see similar storylines on TV all the time, with far less humor. This is one of those stories that is best shared in a live theater with people to experience the push and pull of the mystery and laugh together about the absurd moments in every tragedy. There are true moments of solemn thought as the audience is presented with many possible clues and outcomes, all interspersed with laugh-out-loud hilarity to relieve the tensions. Ravenscroft by Don Nigro is a must-see event. Kudos to Kyle McClaran, GCT and this marvelous cast for bringing this to life.

Granville Arts Center
Garland Civic Theatre, 300 North 5th Street. Garland, TX, 75040
Plays through August 13th

Friday – Saturday at 8:00pm and Sunday at 2:30pm. Tickets are $17-$22, with discounts for groups of ten or more. Please call for info. For info visit Purchase tickets online at or call the box office at 972-205-2790.