Local impresario Jeff Peller has resurrected the charmingly intimate Red Mill Theatre from its state of dormancy since 1978. The theatre opened in 1907, primarily to show silent movies, live vaudeville acts, and also operate as a penny arcade. Since that time it has been utilized by various groups, professional and nonprofessional, but has been mostly dark for the last two decades. What Peller (along with local restaurateur and jazz musician Gary Santucci, who is also sharing the renewed venue for jazz concerts) has accomplished is simply remarkable. Take a group of dedicated acting professionals presenting a zany comedy by one of the continent's most respected screenplay authors, add nostalgic surroundings, serve it up with an authentic Chinese buffet, and the result is a winning combination, unexcelled anywhere in Southwestern Ontario.
Peller, New York-trained actor and director, has created the Actors' Studio of Canada and Real Theatre Productions, to, in his words, "produce compelling and thought-provoking plays by playwrights who we consider to be the true avant-garde of the present day. High quality standards are maintained in our choice of productions, as well as the community groups we choose to support and align ourselves with. As a result, The Actors' Studio of Canada is critically acclaimed and considered by many to be the leader in its field in The Golden Horseshoe. Accomplishments of The Actors' Studio of Canada include drama instruction to more than 1,000 students since 1990, many of whom have gone on to establish careers in film, television and theatre." The Studio has averaged three productions a year in various venues, and is proud to now call the venerable Red Mill their home.
Your evening of theatre begins at Fortune Village, the Chinese restaurant downstairs, in a 30-item or more buffet line, all included in the $35 ticket price. Then, climb the narrow stairs to the second-floor auditorium, an informal space seating just 175 patrons, cabaret-style. The bar is open, and brandy Alexanders are the special of the evening, keeping with the theme of John Patrick Shanley's play that opens this season.
A collage of the disenfranchised, this tragicomedy by the Oscar-winning author of Moonstruck is set in a seedy bar in the Bronx, where a group of 30-something regulars (they were all in the same class at their Catholic grade school) seek relief from the disappointments and tedium of the outside world. The first to arrive is Denise Savage (Deborah Hay), a loner who's also a virgin and would like to remedy the situation. She is joined by Linda Rotunda (Jill Carter), whose problem has been the opposite - too many lovers (and illegitimate children) but who is now worried her current boyfriend, Tony (Anthony Ashbee), is losing interest in her. When this John Travolta-sweathog-wannabe comes bursting in and announces that he is leaving Linda to pursue "ugly girls," girls who have read books and can teach him something, Linda is desolate. By this time Linda has courted Denise's friendship and through mutual desperation, they agree to rent an apartment together. Denise, seeing an advantage, makes a play for Tony, climaxing in a marriage proposal. Drawn into the debacle is Murk (Wade Lynch) the bartender who's been having his own troubles with barfly April (Mary Gordon), a failed nun, who props up the bar and spouts depressing drivel. By the evening's end, only Denise remains as she was - still in the limbo of loneliness from which she so desperately wants to escape.
Shanley's group of dispirited characters tell of being "like a bee in a jar, smelling your own death", and "holding your breath and not letting go." Their respective lots in life are not to be envied and Shanley pulls no punches in showing his characters are real and in pain. While all this sounds mighty depressing, in reality the script is peppered with genuinely funny situations and hysterical lines. It takes talent to pull it all off and director Jeff Peller succeeds where others are sure to have failed. Peller's insight and intuitiveness have allowed the characters to develop without any sense of hysteria, and yet when the laughs come, they are genuine and add to the characters' depth rather than being there merely for comic relief.
Peller has assembled a top-notch staff of young talent to showcase the intricacies of Shanley's "concert play." The star of the show is the title character, ballsy and brash, with a hard shell barely concealing a psychological mess. Hay's interpretation of this complex character is a complete success on several levels, portraying a 32-year-old virgin, which alone is no mean feat, as she plumbs the depths of this character to ensure the audience sees her loneliness, while still revealing Savage's wicked sense of humor. We are particularly pleased to see the talented Hay is already booked for the 1998/99 Theatre Passe Muraille season.
The remainder of the cast play in generally strong support. Carter's Rotunda evolves slowly, from dimwit to self-assured woman. Gordon has some fine moments as the soused and psychotic April (who "could live 30 or 40 more years looking at the meter running"), while Lynch plays Murk with an effective and endearing monotone, and an uncanny ability to serve a drink, immediately. Ashbee's Tony, while entertaining, suffers from over-zealous mannerisms that tend to eclipse his characterization.
Savage in Limbo is a one-act play about lonely people in hopeless situations. Shanley's humor saves the play from sinking into a quagmire of despair, but ultimately it is Jeff Peller's intelligent direction that brings these forlorn characters to life. It's running till May 9, 1998, at the Red Mill Theatre, 80 James St. North (2nd floor), in Hamilton.