For its 2012 show, Isis Productions has selected John Guare’s challenging 1971 play, HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES. The plot follows several interconnected characters in a Queens apartment on a day in 1965 when Pope Paul IV visited New York City. Artie (John Zak) is a defeated zookeeper possessing unrealistic dreams of making it in the songwriting business. His aptly named wife Bananas (Renee Richman-Weisband) lost her mind some time ago, severing any intimate connection between them. At the top of the play, Artie finally decides to act on his far-fetched ambitions by getting in contact with a former friend who’s now a big shot in L.A. (Rob Hargraves).
When you throw in Artie’s neighbor and new love interest (Kirsten Quinn), his mentally unstable GI son who recently went AWOL (Eric Wunsch), a nearly deaf Hollywood starlet (Jenn MacMillan), and three nuns (Janet Wasser, Rebecca Miglionico and Emily Kleimo) who clamored onto the roof of Artie’s building in hopes to catch a glimpse of the Pope as the procession passed by, it almost sounds like the makings of a Neil Simon slapstick. But Guare’s script is much, much darker.
Isis’s production houses some great talent. All the previously noted actors turn in refreshingly deep, emotionally-charged performances. The final well-rehearsed and well-paced product showcases thoughtful direction by Neill Hartley.
Certain bold choices in acting, directing and design, however, force the play out of dark comedy and into the realm of solely disturbing. The actors’ boisterous performances, which would be appropriate in another space, are too vociferous for the intimate venue of Walnut Street Studio 5. At times, the audience is literally being screamed at from two feet away. As a result, it’s difficult to chuckle at a well-timed comic bit a few minutes later. Compounding this, Hartley has set the action so far downstage that portions of the set nearly protrude into the audience. This also caused the stage lighting to spill into the seats, further inhibiting audience reaction. This strips much of the black comedy from Guare’s piece, and the synopsis on Isis’s website describing the play as “one crazy ride from beginning to end with laughter constantly along the way” seems somewhat misplaced.
That said, the actors’ moving performances effectively explore the dark terrain of Guare’s script, and the overall feeling of unease kept the audience enthralled throughout. Isis’s HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES is a memorable production I recommend; I only wish it could have been performed in a larger space.
HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES
by John Guare
Directed by Neill Hartley
March 1 – 25, 2012
Walnut Street Theatre, Studio 5
825 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107