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Tuesday, 21 May 2013 07:31

‘Talking Heads’ has a lot to say, in a quiet, understated way

Written by Tina Farmer
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‘Talking Heads’ has a lot to say, in a quiet, understated way

Not everyone enjoys a monologue-based show, but I find that when done well, monologues offer an actor a chance to really develop character and story. The St. Louis Actors’ Studio production of Alan Bennett's “Talking Heads,” a selection of three monologues from the series of the same name originally airing on the BBC, takes a straightforward approach to its presentation that largely works.

The three stories chosen for production, "Nights in the Gardens of Spain," "A Chip in the Sugar" and "Bed Among the Lentils" are among the best known pieces from the TV series. At the center of each, our narrator tells a story of love, loss and relationships that start out seemingly straightforward. However, each tale takes an unexpected turn that helps keep the audience interested and involved. The central theme seems to be that, much like life itself, our important relationships aren't always what they seem to be and, conversely, the relationships that are important to us are not always the ones others would assume.

In our first story, "Nights in the Gardens of Spain," Elizabeth Ann Townsend recalls the fate of a neighbor convicted for shooting her husband. As she tells of the initial shooting, Townsend reveals a somewhat sheltered and naïve character; as the story unfolds, and the narrator's relationship with the imprisoned woman deepens, the scars and pain of the narrator's own life are also revealed. Townsend does a nice job of portraying both the character's growing affection for the jailed woman as well as her anger and dissatisfaction with her husband. I would have enjoyed Townsend's performance more if she and the director had worked to find more levels within her portrayal. There were some nice choices; particularly in the way she manifested her feelings for the incarcerated neighbor, at first almost blushing, then giggly with joy and, finally, quietly consumed with sadness.

In "A Chip in the Sugar," Alan Knoll portrays an aging, closeted gay man, living at home with and caring for his mother. Knoll's does a wonderful job developing both the mother and the narrator, using his voice to create lively personalities with distinct affectations and personal quirks that help to keep the story moving along at a nice pace. Knoll allows the audience to see not only the narrator's pain, but also his confusion, anger and -- finally -- somewhat snarky satisfaction at the turn of events that rebalance his character's relationship with his mother. He was by turns gossipy, bossy and boyishly charming, both in tone and physicality. This worked well and the story's placement as the centerpiece, propelled by Knoll's abundant energy and the characters own nervous fidgeting, helped keep the evening moving and the audience at attention. At times bitter and sarcastic, Knoll manages to bring the story full circle with a surprising sweetness.

Finally, in "Abed Among the Lentils," Glynis Bell closes the night with a strong performance as an unhappy vicar's wife who nearly loses herself in the bottle before essay writers finding redemption through a liberating, albeit sadly brief, relationship with a shopkeeper. Bell finds a number of levels in her character and does a particularly entertaining job of voicing her husband and the other members of the congregation with whom she clashes. As with Townsend's performance, Bell really shines by revealing the depth of her feelings for the shopkeeper through subtle changes in her vocal tone and physicality. Her voice lifts and brightens noticeably, her shoulders straight, her face lifted up to the light and hopeful. Her character is at turns bitingly sharp and deeply sad, finding only a brief respite from her life sentence as a dutiful support to her husband's ambition.

What helps to make this script, and production, work is the fact that the characters narrating "Talking Heads" are deeply flawed, but poignantly and thoroughly human. They are easy to relate to because they are layered and complex individuals Playwright Alan Bennett is not afraid to peel back those layers and reveal the struggle each has reconciling his or her life as they pictured it to the life that they have lived, without ever quite saying as much. Together, the stories create a bittersweet picture of love and relationships. As is true to life, the relationships the characters' cherish may be less than ideal, but they are individually significant and important.

The show would have benefitted from more focused direction and, perhaps, the judicious use of an editor's pen. Although the cast and crew moved efficiently during scene and costume changes, the pacing was a bit slow throughout and the actors movements often lacked the focused energy needed to keep an audience engaged for the whole performance. At times, thrown light from backstage revealed a bit too much of the actors and crew as they shifted scenes and some of the transitions felt unnecessarily long. In each monologue, director Lana Pepper and the cast would have benefitted by digging just a little deeper into the subtext and emotion, perhaps, but this show requires a delicate balance that is best served by erring on the cautious side.

If you're in the mood for an evening's entertainment that serves as a thoughtful conversation starter, the monologues in St. Louis Actors' Studios production is talking to you. "Talking Heads" runs through May 26th at the Gaslight Theater.

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