Oldcastle's "Tramp" – great story, exceptional acting

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BENNINGTON — When the poet W.H. Auden walked out into the Manhattan evening of September 1, 1939, the world was a different place. Nazi Germany had invaded Poland, and the great wheel of the Second World War began to turn.

That night, in "one of the dives on Fifty-second Street," Auden penned his famous poem, "September 1, 1939," a classic anthem of despair and hope in the face of calamitous history.

On that same day, on the other side of the continent, playwright John Morogiello and director Eric Peterson take us to Hollywood glitter in the world premiere of "The Consul, the Tramp, and America's Sweetheart." The play has been honored with awards by the 2015 Julie Harris Playwright Award Competition and the Dayton Playhouse FutureFest.

Back in Tinseltown, United Artists CEO and acting legend Mary Pickford (Elizabeth Aspenlieder), is called on by German embassy consul George Gyssling (Paul Romero). Gyssling is being held at bay by Pickford's assistant Miss Hollombe (Lori Vega).

The emissary apparently caught wind that silent film legend Charles Chaplin (David Joseph) was shooting a talkie, "The Great Dictator" – arguably his biggest hit, in retrospect – and came to weigh in with his influence to keep this alleged spoof of Adolf Hitler from ever reaching the silver screen.

What follows is a marvelous and intermission-less 90 minute acting clinic, and a heartwarmingly humorous yet seriously didactic story full of both fantasy and reality.

Vega superbly portrayed Hollombe, and this was not an easy task since the young upstart was part groupie, part aspiring writer, part watchdog for her boss, and part conscience for the rest of us. Vega was astute in her moments of narration, convincingly spreading her moral messages of irony to knowing chuckles and head nods.

For his part, Joseph introduced us to a different side of Chaplin's Tramp than the one which popular culture left in our midst, and our memories. Still, his physical movements were uncanny at times in Chaplinesque mimic, and his delivery – sans the trademark moustache, mind you – seamlessly bridged a time gap of generations, much to our delight.

I've had the joy of seeing Aspenlieder in so many diverse roles over the years. On this stage, she was a firestorm of a brash female boss who deftly moved in and out of her own ethical question marks, all to represent the novel notion – for the time period - of a woman in charge of a major business enterprise.

Aspenlieder brilliantly showed us both steely resolve and well as weak knees – not an easy trick, even for a veteran actor.

Finally, Romero has made me scratch my head for years. On stage, I've been fascinated by how loathsome, yet at the same time jovial, he could be. In "Tramp," I finally found my answer: Romero is such a great bad guy because in real life he's just a plain ol' great guy.

In that light, everyone knows that actors – the real professionals – love the challenge of playing their opposites. Romero made me hate Gyssling passionately, but also had me appreciate the consul's skill at ruthless political strong-arming. Bravo, sir!

This play's crew should also take a bow of its own. Having lived in California years ago, I can attest that Richard Howe's set design flawlessly captured the Southwest stucco arch feel that one would expect in an executive office of the period. Exceptional work for a world premiere.

Lights and sound by Cory Wheat were timely and precise, and costumes by Roy Hamlin and Ursula McCarty showed an adroit feel for, and connection to, the era – it's clear someone did their homework.

A special nod must go out to the highly stylized choreography of Ron Ray, and Gary Allan Poe as stage manager had the entire production running like a well-oiled machine.

Mr. Morogiello could not have asked for more for a new play production. He seems to have a knack for premiering a broad range of his best works at Oldcastle, and as much as I loved his previous offerings, this one just might top the lot.

I couldn't help, while sitting in the shadows of this play's opening weekend, to feel that Morogiello was channeling his inner Auden, even if only subconsciously.

Students of 20th century American literature know that while Auden came to loathe "September 1, 1939," almost 80 years of global readers have strongly disagreed.

And while Morogiello is nowhere near detesting his latest work, I truly believe "The Consul, the Tramp, and America's Sweetheart" has some serious legs, and is really going places.

One day, you could tell your friends you saw its first run, done masterfully by a little professional theatre company, Oldcastle, in southwest Vermont. You only have until Sep. 18 to be so lucky.

The Consul, the Tramp, and America's Sweetheart" will run through Sept. 18 at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St. in Bennington, Vt. For tickets and info call 802-447-0564 or visit: oldcastletheatre.org.

Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Assn. (ATCA)


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