Monday July 5, 2010

There is one word that best describes Dorset Theatre Festival’s new artistic director Dina Janis, and that is "genuine." One got that impression immediately on hearing her introduce the kickoff play to DTF’s 35th season, Craig Wright’s Pulitzer Prize nominated offering, "The Pavilion."

That sense only grew when watching the performance, directed by Giovanna Sardelli. Janis’ signature is all over the play and the playhouse, and this bodes well for theatergoers who have patronized DTF for years, only to see it fluctuate in more recent years.

If "The Pavilion" is any indication, then DTF is on its way back. Often described as a "modern day ‘Our Town’" in its earlier performances, Thornton Wilder would have found much to like in this production.

The setting is 1999 in the fictional town of Pine City, Minn., at The Pavilion, an old dance hall, during Peter (Jeremiah Wiggins) and Kari’s (Sarah Kate Jackson) 20th high school reunion. They are joined by the narrator (Antoinette LaVecchia), and a host of other classmates, also played by LaVecchia.

‘Cutest Couple’

Peter and Kari were once voted "Cutest Couple," but two decades later found their lives nothing like they expected. The downward turn of events was precipitated years earlier when Peter walked out on Kari while she was pregnant with their child, which she subsequently aborted.


Advertisement

Peter is back from the Twin Cities to turn back the clock and right past wrongs; the audience is left in anticipation of how long Kari’s resistance can last, and if reconciliation is indeed possible.

The actors were top-shelf. Wiggins, a seasoned pro and DTF newcomer, was convincing as a man with aspirations who couldn’t get out of his own path to save his life. His ability to pull off pathetic school boy chic greatly complemented the forced enthusiasm he was called upon to portray when addressing classmates following his song solo, and at other times. We could tell he still had a thing for Kari, but had no way of seeing if he could carry it off.

Jackson, another DTF rookie, took us right along the forays into her past, paralleling her confusion as a young girl. She was very credible in demonstrating that the more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Kari adeptly threw us just enough crumbs to validate what she felt for Peter, but not enough to let us know what she was going to do about it.

Finally, not enough can be said for LaVecchia, perhaps the finest piece of casting at DTF in years. This woman played the entire class of 1979, the collective memories of our own teenage years, and the Oedipal chorus -- all rolled into one. Her well of her talent was seemingly bottomless. With excellent verbal as well as physical expression, LaVecchia was the evening’s compass, a guide through time and space that could be Siren one moment, and Muse the next.

Backed by such a strong cast, Debra Booth’s set design was both functional and whimsical - both as a locale, and a backdrop to our own consciences. Costumes by Barbara A. Bell, lighting by Michael Giannitti, and sound by Jane Shaw were perfect complements to Janis’ burst out of the gates as DTF’s shepherd.

The production carried a considerable share of humor, as well as f-bombs. While some may be turned off to the latter, they served a purpose in taking otherwise mature adults back to 1979 and the capriciousness of adolescence. Look past the oft-repeated epithets to the character’s message.

That herald is all about time, and how challenging it can be to get a firm grip on it. The past is gone, and the present is but a moment. All that seems to remain is hope for the future. Judging by this play’s execution, we can finally hope that Dorset Theatre Festival has finally found its Muse in Janis.

The Pavilion" runs through July 11 at Dorset Theatre Festival. For ticket reservation and information call the DTF box office at 802-867-5777 or visit www.dorsettheatrefestival.org

Telly Halkias is the Stage Names drama critic. E-mail him at: tchalkias@aol.com