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Arts and Craft

Princess Squid takes advantage of actors' Furies.

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While the audience is filing into the Next Space for Princess Squid Productions' Furies, the three-person cast is preparing for the show in full view. Each performer has taken over a corner of the room and tacked up scrapbook clippings from his or her thespian life. Closer inspection reveals clues to the jaunty show about to begin, one that turns the actors' approaches to their craft inside out and spills them onto the floor.

Katie Gilchrist plays herself and also the character "Katie Gilchrist." Last month, she completed her master's in fine arts degree at UMKC, so she has all that academic propaganda at her disposal. She's a "Classical" actress, well-versed in the Greek tragedians and seemingly dressed for a production of Hedda Gabler while toting a thick volume of Shakespeare under her arm. She doesn't have to say that she's paid her dues.

Michael Andrew Smith sits in his corner dressed like a Blues Brother and smoking a cigarette -- an actor of "Instinct," having done it since he was a kid. There are photos of him from various productions around town and his first head shot -- an eleven-year-old making a goofy face. He might have had an acting class or two, but he learned by doing, taking directors' barking orders and flying by the seat of his pants.

Heidi Van Middlesworth is tagged "Physical." She has traditional acting credentials but is also schooled in commedia dell'arte, a European style of characterization descended from clowns and court jesters. She's sitting at a mirror in her "shrine to self," wearing a camisole and jockey shorts. She's doing what she can to subvert her cute demeanor: ratting her hair and eventually donning a red nose, a silly tiara and a helmet made out of a Bud Light box.

What happens in the next 45 minutes or so is a mix of autobiography, acting class and performance art. After each actor introduces him- or herself with a series of other descriptive words like earth, wind and fire (and farter), each delivers a monologue exorcising personal drives and inspirations. Van Middlesworth delivers hers mostly silently except for the drum and cymbal forced upon two random audience members. She instantaneously trains her ersatz orchestra to accompany her bumps, grinds and kicks. When they screw up, her exaggerated looks of disappointment are priceless, and when they fail her completely, her scream of "I'm dying here!" is almost primal.

Smith's acting tools come from various places in the cultural cosmos. He's like a human satellite dish, quoting sources as diverse as Radiohead and Edward Albee while wrapping their words around him -- they're written on rolls of paper tacked to the walls. By the close of his piece, he's posited that perhaps actors can be influenced too much by the voices of others, losing their own in the process.

Gilchrist is a steely beauty whose erect posture is of a piece with the tight bun atop her head. What she reveals hints at the kind of childhood scrapes and scars that can be cathartically channeled into an acting career, where attention is not only sought but craved.

She and her peers then turn Furies into something else entirely, a riveting indictment of artifice. In short, the cast strips itself of emotional masks and barriers and reteams as one vital organ.

Among the other hands in the show are director Kara Armstrong, dramaturg Melissa J.A. Carle, lighting designer Lindsey B. Jones and sound designer David Kiehl. What the young Princess Squid company accomplishes here is at once amorphous and sharply focused. And, for all the actors' internal angst, they remind the audience that they can't do it alone.


Postscript: Gene Mackey, artistic director of Theatre for Young America, and his staff are settling into their new space in the former home of the Fine Arts Theatre at 5909 Johnson Drive in Mission. After several years at the Mission Center Mall, TYA has moved into what is now the "family friendly" Dickinson Top Two Theatre. A more compatible partnering hasn't been seen since Late Night Theatre took over the Old Chelsea.

Mackey says the move has been completed "without any pause in our performance schedule," which kicks up again next week with its French spin on the Cinderella fairy tale. Because TYA performs mostly during the day and the Top Two screens second-run features at night, he expects few conflicts.

"Scenically, it has its limitations, because the sets have to be stored at the end of every day," he says. TYA technical director J.T. Taube has addressed that problem by building what Mackey describes as "a pop-up set with wings."

It can be cosmetically altered to fit a particular show's needs and then, because it's completely dark on the back, vanish before each day's first screening.

Also, the room's two-level stage offers more depth and flexibility, he says, though the new dimensions will force directors to pay more attention to focus and visibility. Dressing rooms don't yet exist but will be carved out of storage space behind the smaller of Top Two's screens. It's not ideal, but then again, Mackey says, "I've worked in theaters were you've had to go outside."

When the 2003-'04 season begins in September, TYA will be widening its geographical scope yet again by staging shows downtown at the City Stage Theatre in Union Station. "It's an excellent facility with state-of-the-art technical equipment and intimate seating," he says of that merger. "[Union Station's] educational mission is very compatible with that of Theatre for Young America."

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