‘Rocket Man’ at Colonial Players

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The Colonial Players of Annapolis open their 66th season with Rocket Man, their 344th season production. Rocket Man, the 21st play written by the prolific Steven Dietz, was first produced in 1998. It tells the story of Donny (Ben Carr), a man in the midst of an existential crisis, as he tries to find a new direction for his life. Throughout the play, Donny’s friends and family try to understand and help him through his crisis (though ultimately they all fail to do so). The play is divided into two acts each a different reality where the actors portray alternate versions of the same character. This show addresses numerous deep issues: the purpose of life, the futility of action, alternate reality, and love and loss. Unfortunately, the performance that I saw failed to match that depth.

The cast of 'Rocket Man.' Photo courtesy of The Colonial Players.

The cast of ‘Rocket Man.’ Photo courtesy of The Colonial Players.

The Colonial Players perform in an arena theater (where the stage is surrounded by the audience on all sides). From any one of the four low rows on each side you can see the entirety of the stage and the audience. To keep the sightlines clear this requires that the set be lower than three feet, but Edd Miller’s design does a wonderful job of suggesting an attic without overloading the space. Of particular note are the joist pieces and the skylight suspended from the grid. Being able to walk through the space and examine the set in detail before the show and during the intermission was an especial treat. The costuming is in modern dress and Hannah Sturm’s design conveys a standard American look that is clean, colorful, and understated.

This is Colonial Players’ first production since they installed their new lighting grid. Those of you who take an interest in such things will share my admiration for the quality of the grid. They have transitioned part of the grid to LED lighting which gives them control over color and effects that are unmatched by traditional filament lighting instruments. Terry Averill’s lighting design puts these LEDs to good use especially during the amazing, audience-including star field effect at the end of each act. Jim Reiter’s music design works beautifully in concert with the lighting to set a great atmosphere.

I have numerous issues with the structure and content of the script, things which this production has no control over. That being said, there are a few items whose effects on the performance I would like to address. The first act has a single blackout in the action which allows the performance to build a nice momentum. The second act, however, has multiple blackouts which make for a choppy act that never matches the momentum of the first. The production is able to overcome this structural issue and the performance clips along at a nice even pace which makes the two and a half hours pass quickly.

10687152_772027699527336_1725782239296147600_nPlays are about the absolutes of human experience, the highest highs and the lowest lows. Even the tragedy of the common man, like Death of a Salesman, is about a man hitting absolute bottom. The performance that I saw was unable to hit the peaks and valleys; the changes from moment to moment, from tragedy to triumph, from anger to love, were so small that the whole show came across as emotionally monotone.

Consistency is an issue. Each actor had one solid act and one act of opportunities. Act two started roughly with some line bobbles. Ben Carr’s first act Donny swings back and forth between distracted savant and loving man, but the swings are small, the changes unclear, and his constant, directionless movement make his performance unfocused. In the second act, however, Donny is calmer, focused, more in control, and his motivations are clearer.

Laura E. Gayvert’s first act Rita is angry, distant, and unsympathetic. In the second act her Rita is loving, committed, and filled with genuine emotion.

Paige Miller’s first act Trisha is detached until the final scene when she has a more meaningful emotional connection with Donny. Her second act Trisha, however, has a worldly charm and gracefulness that is subtle and enjoyable.

Timothy Sayles’ first act Buck is loveable in his awkward but genuine efforts to help and understand Donny. His second act Buck, though, is a clown and loses most of the pathos he carried through the first act.

Shirley Panek’s first act Louise has a still, calm strength about her which makes a nice counterpoint to Donny, but at times she came across as too controlled. Her second act Louise, by contrast, is more energetic but suffers similarly to Sayles’ second act Buck losing much of her depth. It is clear to me that these actors are all talented and worked hard on this production, but the overall sculpting and polishing of this show was lacking.

I feel then, that the responsibility must lie with Director Scott Nichols. One of the best parts of directing is having the opportunity to craft moments. I feel that some of the large moments get close to the mark, but it is all of the small moments that got glossed over. The small moments are where we come to love and care about characters.

The performance that I saw was of a visually and aurally beautiful play that has the potential to be great, but a difficult script and a monotone emotional quality caused it to fall short. Given Colonial Players long decorated history and their reputation for quality I am hopeful and confident that as the show progresses the performances will tighten up.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

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Rocket Man plays through September 27, 2014 at the Colonial Players of Annapolis – 108 East Street, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call (410) 268-7373, or purchase them online.

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