Monday, March 19, 2012

Of Mice and Men

OF MICE AND MEN compelling at Blank Canvas

There is a new theatre in town…Blank Canvas. Founder Patrick Ciamacco explains that this is a professional theatre which pays designers and actors for their services. He states that the organization’s staff is “dedicated to providing a positive working environment and want to show loyalty and investment in actors.”

Ciamacco states, “it is our goal to create a new love for theater in people who might not usually see a show. That was why we opened with The Texas Chainsaw Musical. We saw a large number of non-typical theater people. We'll always have one show in our season that fits this criteria. We want to create a versatile season that appeals to many different people.”

The company’s opening show, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MUSICAL, was well received. Their latest staging is OF MICE AND MEN.

John Steinbeck’s novella, OF MICE AND MEN, which was written in 1937, is required reading in many high schools. Not in all, however, because some religious zealots believe that the “offensive” language of the book, is not fit for teenagers. Too bad for those who miss out because it is a well-written and meaningful piece of literature. The play version follows closely the book’s plot.

Steinbeck knew well the migrant laborers of the depression days. Mainly white, poor, and solitary, they travelled the country seeking work. The men were mainly frustrated over their working conditions and often dreamed of having a small place of their own, where they didn’t have to work for someone else and take orders from bosses who were often as miserable as themselves. Steinbeck worked on a company-owned ranch, so he writes from personal experience.

OF MICE AND MEN basically tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, who wander California in search of work. They dream of getting enough money to buy a small ranch site they know is available. Much like the Robert Burns poem “To A Mouse,” which reads, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, often go awry,’ the men’s plans often get destroyed.

George and Lennie are best friends. George is smart, not from book learning, but filled with common sense. Lennie is anything but the small stature his last name indicates. He is large, has great strength, but limited intelligence. A creature of emotional drives, he is childlike in his obsession for touching soft things. When he touches softness, whether it be mice, rabbits, puppies or cloth, he can lose rational control. The living things he touches often, because of his strength and uncontrolled emotions, wind up dead.

George attempts to protect Lennie from the world around him. Lennie makes George’s life meaningful by giving him someone who needs him.

The duo finds works at a ranch, working under the supervision of the ill-willed Curley, the boss’s son. Just when the duo’s hopes for getting their little farm seem to be within reach, Curley’s beautiful, but unhappy wife, becomes the innocent victim of Lennie’s compassion, and true tragedy strikes on several fronts.

Presented on a thrust stage surrounded by only three rows of seats, the entire staging is close and personal. For this closeness to work, the production must be realistic. Under the careful direction of Patrick Ciamacco, the Blank Canvas’s production is compelling. Everything from the realistic fight scenes, to the clear character development, is on-target. Laughter or emotional gasps from the audience at key moments, clearly reflect the quality of the show. More than one handkerchief was pulled out at the concluding blackout.

Ciamacco, who not only directs, has designed the sets, serves as technical director, created the program, and conceived the poster design, makes Lennie live. This is not a portrayal, this is a case of immersing yourself into a part so much that you become the person. He walks the fine line between being childish and child-like with precision. He creates a man-child who the audience wants to cuddle and save from himself.

Joe Kenderes as George, is Ciamacco’s equal. He is totally believable in creating a man who says that he would be better off alone, but who cares so greatly for Lennie that he would do about anything to save the hulking man of limited abilities from pain.

Tim Tvcar as Candy, the old man who lost his hand in a ranch accident, sees no personal future, Noah Hbrek, as the hateful insecure Curley, Betsy Kahl, Curley’s lonely wife who finds herself isolated and wanting only “someone to talk to,” Daniel Bush, as a rational mule man, Lucas Scattergood (Carlson), William Goff (Whit), John Polk (The Boss), and Marvin Mallory (Crooks), are all excellent. Even Riley, who portrays Candy’s aged dog, has great stage presence.

The set, the location changes, and the incidental music all add greatly to the performance.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Blank Canvas’s OF MICE AND MEN is a compelling piece of theatre. This is an absolutely must see production filled with fine acting and focused staging.