Let's say you've just sat down to read the latest issue of your favorite neighborhood alternative weekly. You're into it, digging the words, down with the syntax, and then suddenly there are A BUNCH OF CAPITAL LETTERS, AND SURE, IT GETS YOUR ATTENTION, BUT YOU QUICKLY REALIZE IT'S REALLY OVERBEARING, AND IT'S GETTING HARD TO CONCENTRATE, AND YOU JUST WANT IT TO FUCKING . . . stop.
The same thing happens over and over again in the current production of The Shadowbox at the Empire Theater. Instead of words lying flat on a page, it's words being screamed and yelled and strangled through the small confines of this small venue. Someone has apparently forgotten to tell director Gregory Cohen two things: a) know your space, and b) subtlety is possible—and even appreciated —in the theater.
I am growing increasingly disillusioned by theater dominated by overemoting actors who think the only way to affect an audience is to blubber or scream all over the stage. It's the hint of tears and the threat of anger exploding that carries tension. A whisper can carry much more weight than a scream.
Especially in a play like this. Sure, The Shadowbox is 20 years old, and the idea of three cancer victims shipped to an experimental health clinic seems a bit dated. But it's still a play with a lot of feeling, as much about the people around terminally ill victims as it is about the actual victims. So there is a lot of emotion to experiment with, from fear and anger to guilt and denial.
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But Cohen and his cast seem locked into portraying all these complicated emotions through a series of intense, veins-popping-out-of-the-neck emotional ketchup bursts.
It doesn't help that most of the actors belong to the hand-through-the-hair, wringing-of-hands school of physicality. There is way too much flailing of arms and ridiculous contorting of faces to show emotion. The body isan actor's instrument, but as with music, it's the space between the notes that is important. Every movement onstage, from the shaking of a head to the quivering of lips, can be clearly seen. And when you're in a small theater doing what should be an intense play and you're playing as many notes with your body as Eddie Van Halen on his Strat, there's a lot of noise going on, and it's hard to hear anything worth hearing.
The lone performer to rise above this annoying din is Jenn Ortiz, who plays the resident slut (although Bill Peters' Brian also has his moments). Ortiz acts with her eyes, not choosing to explode at every turn. When she finally does get to her obligatory tearjerker scene, it's actually a surprise, as well as quite effective and human. The rest of these characters are also human—the kind of humans who most of us can't stand being around because they're REALLY LOUD AND OBNOXIOUS, and we wish they'd just shut up.
The Shadowbox at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through March 12. $10-$12.