BRIT is back.
Every year, the USF School of Theatre and Dance brings professional British directors, actors, designers and other artists to Tampa as part of the British International Theatre Program (BRIT). Working with students, these artists from overseas present an annual theater production which is sometimes superb — for example, 2007’s The Birthday Party — and sometimes embarrassing — 2006’s Romeo and Juliet. This year the guests from across the pond are members of the Filter Theatre Company, and the concoction they’ve developed, along with USF theater students, is called Body Stories.
The good news is, it’s an engaging if not quite revelatory experience, and a fine showcase for most of the student actors involved. Combining theater and dance, displaying intricately interwoven “realistic” narratives along with more abstract presentations, it proves that a modernistic approach to story-telling can still work, and can even be more potent than traditional dramaturgy. If you’re nostalgic for that old war horse, the avant garde, this is the show for you: it’s intelligent and artful and, at moments, simply joyous. And even if your preference is for that other style (realism), there’s enough of that here to keep you interested and satisfied.
When not digressing into modern dance and pantomime, Body Stories tells five stories. There’s the encounter between the composer John Cage and a Dr. Higgs of MIT, who wants to prove that true silence exists. There’s the visit that a woman called Stephanie pays on her mother, a dementia victim, and her mother’s caretaker, a religious Hispanic woman. There’s the interaction of Melissa, who plays a pirate at an amusement park, and Britney, a little girl whose parents are often loudly at each other’s throats. There’s Jackie, a college track star recovering from a hamstring injury, who’s competing for a place on the U.S. National Team. And there’s Bruce and Anna, who are finding, after being married some years, that the sex between them has become stale. Writer Stephen Brown (of the Filter Theatre) chops these five stories into brief segments, and juggles them unpredictably as the evening unfolds. A couple of them never build steam —– the John Cage bit, and the Bruce and Anna sections. But the rest are moving and suspenseful, with the story of Stephanie the most affecting.
That story goes like this: Stephanie (Kendell McNay) is an aspiring Jewish writer living in Brooklyn who plans to visit her mother Julie (pro actor Rosemary Orlando) on the latter’s birthday. Julie was once an intellectually vibrant professor, but now is an Alzheimer’s victim deeply dependent on her new caretaker Maria Luisa (the terrific Alexis Cruz). When Stephanie gets to her mother’s house, she finds that Maria Luisa has removed precious books and pictures, and has put up crucifixes and pictures of her own family in their places. Stephanie goes ballistic: Does Maria Luisa know that Julie’s mother was an atheist who wrote a feminist critique of the work of St. Paul? Does she realize that among the books she removed were precious first editions? As Stephanie fulminates and Maria Luisa defends her own religious values, we’re made aware that while multi-culturism is the rule now, it still can lead to some monumental contretemps. And the scene in which all three performers are on stage together is the most memorable in the whole show.
Other memorable moments: Michelle Morocco’s fine portrayal of troubled track star Jackie, who’s trying to advance past her amateur college status. What’s so impressive is Morocco’s ability to suggest the pain she’s silently experiencing even when she’s supposed to be focused on nothing but winning. In a different set of scenes, Chelsea Shepard is delightful as a sincere, good-hearted young woman who slowly comes to recognize that she has some responsibility to rescue neighbor child Britney (Laydelis Piloto) from her warring, neglectful parents.
Filter director (and co-artistic director) Oliver Dimsdale is expert at creating segues from theater to dance and back again, and the show’s sound design, by Filter’s Christopher Branch and Marc Teitler, reaches all the way to exultation just when you thought you were lost in reflection. There’s hardly any set, but what there is is the work of G. B. Stephens.
In conclusion: this is one of the BRIT program’s better productions. And in a Bay area that seldom sees anything but realistic drama, it’s a refreshing departure.
So tote one up for the mother country.