Story: Mrs. Sorken, title character in the first skit, greets the audience to inform us about protocol and purpose behind the experience of attending the theater. She’s lost her notes, so she relies upon her somewhat scattered memory to give us a quick history about theater, drama and ancient Greeks, and how closely Dramamine is tied to drama. Who knew?
In The Duck Variations, two elderly gentlemen, Emil and George, pass the time on a bench by a lake in a public park expounding upon the traits of the seldom regarded duck. It’s a grand bird, they proclaim, with knowledge of its species that may or may not be quite accurate. Still, ruminations and observations about their web-footed friends serve as a bridge of communication between the two solitary figures. With apologies to Paul Simon, they may be old friends, sharing a park bench, albeit not too quietly. How terribly strange.
Highlights: Mustard Seed Theatre artistic director Deanna Jent has cleverly paired two small gems written in 1984 and 1972 respectively by Christopher Durang and David Mamet for a brief evening that entertains and delights in little more than an hour.
Other Info: Less is more in this effort, which features the always eloquent Peggy Billo as the subtly disappointed matron who greets us and the savvy craftsmanship of Bobby Miller and Richard Lewis as the pair of aged gents who wax philosophical from their sturdy park bench.
Jent’s leisurely but insightful directorial style allows her three performers to engage the audience with their wit and winning ways as they cleverly craft these charming characters created by two of America’s top contemporary playwrights.
They’re abetted by a spare set designed and lit by Bess Moynihan that features a prominent painted backdrop of blue sky and the lush beauty of the park, while a single bench on a platform takes center stage, with a trash container nearby. Kareem Deanes adds the soft sound of birds in the background, while Emma Bruntrager’s costumes clearly define the age of the two men, who dress for comfort and protection, and Mrs. Sorken, who has the look and faded style of a suburban matron of the arts.
Billo is ever charming, dutifully acting as our docent and relying upon sometimes faulty recollections of e-ty-mol-o-gy, as she has us pronounce back, to study the derivation of words. Fortunately for her, drama sounds a lot like Dramamine, a prescription drug with which Mrs. Sorken has more than a passing familiarity.
She’s so subtle in relaying her wistful disappointments about her life and times that you might miss it if you’re not paying close attention. Either way, you’re inclined to think that Billo’s Mrs. Sorken is OK with your response.
Miller’s George chews and sits and speaks like the crusty old codger you may know from your neighborhood, and Lewis as Emil is as dependable and reliable as a pair of familiar shoes. They share an easy give-and-take, where disagreements can be loud but fleeting, and where George can casually hold his empty coffee cup while Emil fills it from his thermos. You can tell that they share a bond, whether it’s brand new or part of a regular ritual.
Both Durang and Mamet are known for their shrillness and profanity, not to mention total lack of subtlely. These two nicely polished little gems show us a different side of both playwrights. It shouldn’t be too surprising, though, since both writers know their way around the English language and are accomplished at creating memorable characters and scenes.
The characters in these works, which are really more vignettes than plays, say plenty about the human condition with an economy of motion and words. In the hands of accomplished interpreters such as Jent, Billo, Lewis and Miller, the storytelling magic of Durang and Mamet provides both soft laughter and pensive rumination for a receptive audience.
Play: Mrs. Sorken and The Duck Variations
Group: Mustard Seed Theatre
Venue: Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, Wydown at Big Bend
Dates: January 31, February 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10
Tickets: $20-$25 (pay with a can/pay what you can at Saturday matinees); contact 719-8060 or mustardseedtheatre.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb