In the annals of literary dwarflore, there have been plenty of notable ones: Sleepy and Co., Tolkien's world-weary warriors; Oz's Munchkins–if you stretch the definition a bit. But has there ever been a great dwarf?
Apparently so, since The Dwarf is the second production of Orange County's newest professional theater company, Counter-Balance Theater, which, according to its website, “is dedicated to the creation of physical theater based on great literature.”
Founded a year ago, the company's first production was an adaptation of Jane Eyre. The Dwarf , based on Swedish novelist Par Lagerkvist's 1944 novel “is an intensely personal view of Renaissance Italy from the perspective of the court dwarf,” says Counter-Balance Artistic Director Annie Loui. “I look for a well-written novel that appeals to me, and that is full of action that reveals character. Novels that are episodic are best for this form of physical theater, where we tell the story through physical action.”
But doesn't every theater production do that? Yes, to some degree, but it seems that physicality is far more integral to Counter-Balance's mission than the old adage of directors telling actors to just “know your lines and don't bump into the furniture.”
“We adapt novels to the stage, condensing imagery and text into a fully realized stage production,” Loui says. “So that a core group of six or seven actors play the 100 characters, and the horses and carriages, the architecture, and the furniture. Dialogue is used when it is critical (intimate scenes) and then movement is used when it tells the story best (like) a battle scene, for instance, when armies charge each other….We also use sound and lighting design intensely so that the audience almost feels like they are watching a living film.”
In the novel, our titular dwarf (played by Jacob Dresch) is a prick among men. He pretty much despises everyone and his diminutive stature is less a physical aberration than a living manifestation of a creature stunted by his psychotic nature. But it isn't just a character-study in evil. Those more apparently moral beings around him, such as princes, princesses and mercenaries, have their own dark passengers, and maybe the Dwarf is merely the most honest among them.
Whatever the case, considering Counter-Balance is a troupe comprised of current faculty, students and alumni of UC Irvine's theater department, a program that has never been timid of experimental or out-of-the-box theater, look for The Dwarf tto be something out of the ordinary.
"One of the most rewarding parts of this work is the fact that the audience becomes actively engaged in following the story,” Loui said. "They get very quiet. You can hear them listening, and see them delighted when the performer who was the Princess in the previous scene becomes the Dwarf's mule in the next. It is a theater of transformation and keeps the audience on its toes.”
This weekend's performance at UCI is really more of a preview, as The Dwarf moves to UCLA's Clark Library's Arts on the Grounds series the following weekend.
Claire Trevor Theater, UCI, Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 1 N 7 p.m. $15. www.counter-balancetheater.com.