My published thoughts on “Spinning into Butter” should be available tomorrow but the following is a little preview. (UPDATE! Here's the review online. Also check out MaryB's piece on Chris Burnside's work in support of the children of Ghana.) One of the things that I think theater delivers regularly in a way that movies and television only bother with occasionally is deeply provocative, highly literate, wonderfully entertaining works that can inspire at least a night’s worth of conversation, and a week’s worth of thought. “Butter” is one of those plays. The script has been in circulation for many years but I’ve always missed out on seeing a production. I’m glad that the Firehouse production was my introduction because it was well rendered and fleshed out with some fabulous performances.
And sure, the lead actors are great and all, but I’d like to start out at a possibly unexpected place: Tony Santiago and Matt Polson both deliver fine performances in their somewhat small roles as two very different college students. You usually hope and expect the leads are going to be great but what can really raise a production from good to superb are the supporting players. As Nuyorican student, Patrick, Santiago expertly captures the many moods of his character as he transitions from hopeful to frustrated to outraged. And through it all, his character is consistent and well-grounded – I had a pretty clear sense of who he was in the first scene and each succeeding scene built on that foundation. Truly a great job by a young actor.
Polson has starred in several noticeable roles before – I’ll always remember his hilarious Gaston in Theatre IV’s “Beauty and the Beast.” But he distinguishes himself in “Butter” in just the few scenes he’s in. Most impressive to me was that, when his character discovers an unexpected conviction in himself near the end, he seems just as surprised as we are. It’s a nice turn and Polson pulls it off well.
The characters played by Melissa Johnston Price and Robert Albertia are both a bit cartoonish – they seem more “types” than actual people. But if there are any two actors who can infuse these types with some real humanity, Price and Albertia are the ones. Price does imperious as good as anyone and Albertia’s grandfatherly throw-back has a pretty convincing nasty streak. But where they really shine is in communicating decades worth of a “complicated” relationship between the characters in just a few lines. As portrayed at the Firehouse, these two characters made me think that “Butter” could have been adapted into an excellent television series where we get small pieces of their back-story as it progresses. Are you listening Rebecca Gilman?
Of course, the big two players are Fred Iacovo and Katie McCall as Ross and Sarah. I’ll be honest: for me, McCall is one of those actresses who could do a night reading the phone book and I’d be enraptured. In this production, she completely and thoroughly embodies her character and her honesty is heart-rending. In the abstract, it’s hard to work up much sympathy for a guilt-ridden, closet racist but it’s impossible not to empathize with this character given the depth and feeling McCall projects in her performance. Her performance defies that simple characterization, makes it real and multi-faceted and complicated.
Fred was probably the most entertaining character for me. His character’s naivety in love is a bit ridiculous and contemptible but the hope and will to try that goes along with it proves honorable and praise-worthy in the end. Fred never tries to make Ross too despicable nor does he try to make him too likable. It’s a pleasure to watch a performance that is a bit like a mystery – it keep you guessing and it’s impossible to truly figure it out. Great fun.
The only performance I had a bit of a hard time with was Steve Moore’s as the security guard, Mr. Myers. In my opinion, Moore doesn’t do anything bad, per se, but in contrast to Fred’s character, I couldn’t get a handle on Mr. Myers and I found it frustrating rather than entertaining. If anything, this is a character I wanted to be more of a “type.” This character is a little like one of Shakespeare’s fools – the little guy who is more insightful than any of the smarties in the room. I don’t know exactly what I would have preferred by I guess I can imagine either a mild-mannered bear like Michael Clarke Duncan in this role or a kindly, wise old soul like Ian McKellen (OK, maybe not quite that old).
I had been given some advanced notice that the set was good and it was indeed pretty impressive. Ed Slipek did a great job – an amazingly thorough job – in assembling all the appropriate details that would make up a Dean’s office in a northeastern liberal arts college. Some of my favorite parts were the faux hardwood floor, the abstract and cubist art – intellectual but not too threatening, and the scene out the window. It was a fine set that starts to put Firehouse in the same league as some of the finely-honed beauties that Tom Width puts together down at the Mill.
Mostly, this is a bracingly intelligent play that grapples with real issues in an honest way. I had some quibbles with some aspects of the script and in my post-midnight grumpiness as I was working on wrapping up my review, I might have highlighted those with more vigor that I would have in the light of day. And it’s hard to ignore that, for a play that explores race, it’s also primarily about white folks and their difficulties. But it’s a rare treat to find a show that engages both the mind and the heart so effectively. Thanks Firehouse and director Morrie Piersol for such a great production!