Last week I saw a production at Metanoia Theatre in Brunswick where I was introduced to a young theatre company, Baker’s Dozen Theatre. I was there to see the company’s latest production SOUL OF A WHORE, a story about an Evangelical Priest recently released from a Texas prison for fraud who captures the hearts of believers again by exorcising a Demon out of the souls of multiple locals. Like always, I was eager to meet new independent talent – i.e. directors, companies, actors, production crew – and anticipated the opportunity to be entertained by an ensemble of recent graduate performers. But like the old adage says, ‘too many bakers spoil the broth,’ I certainly left the theatre having experienced a bad broth.
SOUL OF A WHORE is a brew of poor storytelling choices. In the professionally designed program, Director, Robin Thomas says in is Director’s Notes, ‘I feel I have a responsibility to the actors and production team to allow them the opportunity to express themselves. Rather than impose my ideas onto them, I wish to encourage their passion and artistic capability.’ I have a problem with this choice from any director because, like any team (i.e sports, business, partnerships), one voice must hold the team accountable on a path that achieves a common goal. Instead, this choice left me any others in the audience confused about the world these creators introduced to us.
The first blatantly poor choice was the set design – a bland space of baby-blue walls, a cut lateral picture window frame and an old rackety door. Downstage were tinier set pieces – a cigarette bin, a set of three chairs pushed together as a bench and an old telephone booth next to the door. Outside these bland walls there was no world, or at least a clear and distinguishable one painted by the actors’ imagination.
While mentioned, let’s discuss the actors’ performances. Poor. I couldn’t understand much of the stage activity because every performance was mostly done in anger and shouting tones. These were not portrayed as real people but charactuers. Dialogue between characters was so open to the audience that there were some moments it seemed they were breaking the fourth wall for no reason. Further more, I was left confused as to who was talking to whom, and what are they starring at on the ceiling?
Adding more fuel to this incoherent production, the costume choices were poorly conceptualised. I think it was because some choices were taken too literal while other not literal enough. An example of too literal choice was the elderly woman at the bus station. She was dressed all in black and looked like an Eastern European woman, not someone from Texas. I believe this choice was made solely in reference to the line within script saying (I’m paraphrasing) she looks to be dressed in black. Unfortunately, I was left confused about who this character was and why she had anything to do with the story.
An example of a costume choice not taken literally enough, was Priest, Bill Jenks. Firstly, for being just released from a Texas prison the Priest was too well-dressed and clean-shaven. Secondly, multiple characters made reference to his attire in the dialogue, specifically mentioning his checkered pants. Yet he stood dressed in nicely-pressed tan khakis. These poor choices made it difficult for me to believe the reality of the play.
I know I personally left the theatre confused, but there were others in the seats who quite enjoyed the performance. Some audience members chuckled at a few “funny” moments. It is difficult for me not guess that Baker’s Dozen Theatre currently have a strong friends and family audience base to lean on because I interpreted these laughs stemmed from the natural behavioural patterns of these performers and not from the actual storytelling itself.
Looking past these poor choices, SOUL OF A WHORE is a thought-provoking piece of writing. In my research of writer, Denis Johnson is a playwright known for long poetic verse plays – ones that can cover almost 200 pages in length. What I liked the most about Johnson’s writing were the interesting and conflicting themes presented throughout the story – good vs. evil, ego vs. reality, science vs. religion, spiritual healer vs. doctor, etc. However, I believe Baker’s Dozen Theatre did a major disservice to the play by having a sense of laziness in the preparation. I mean, Did anyone on the creative team research this production? Were the basic questions ever considered – what is the playwright saying by telling this story? Why, when the play could be set in any city/town/area in the world, would the playwright choose a small town enroute to Houston, Texas? I believe that if these questions were truly answered by all creative members involved, there would have been one less confused audience member.
If willing to sit through a student-attempted production, SOUL OF A WHORE will be your cup-of-tea. If not, then I would recommend saving a Baker’s Dozen Theatre production in the next few years when the company finds their creative niche. Meantime, I hope the creative team treats this production as an educational opportunity to consider when it is appropriate to challenge themselves and when the challenge just isn’t worth it.