An (over)long play’s journey into night
Nothing Special Productions presents
Review by Clint May
In the newly-renovated space on the third floor of The Den Theatre, an equally new production has been mounted. For something so fresh, it has a decidedly old-fashioned feel. A postcolonial love triangle erupts on a small tropical island; an earthquake follows from the collision of Victorian ideals of propriety, property, enlightenment and romanticism. A premiere from Nothing Special Productions penned by Josh Nordmark, Savage Land wants so ardently to breathe life into an antique era but falls short of excavating the kind of heartbreaking insight required.
Deep in a jungle camp, the artist-turned-scientist Henry (Matt Drake) lives with his wife Verse (Celeste Burns). She’s a former social climber of some repute in their native England, able to charm her way through any situation with her beauty and guile. This is a great skill for someone born to poor means and no education. On the shore, the wealthy and pompous Fauntleroy (Scott Danielson)—a man Verse left scathed in her wake—is coming back to take her as a prize under the pretense of painting the natives himself. As her marriage has, of late, been less than a happy one, her encounter with the mercurial man of means en route for supplies results in a confusing betrayal of her vows. His wooing is clumsy, more a man seeking to regain lost territory than a lover. In fact, both men in her life are too aloof to know the meaning of love as Verse desires it. Henry turned away from romantic art towards scientific documentation (in the way of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues or John James Audubon) while Fauntleroy lists towards the sensationalist appeal of the exotic with little regard for the truth of these “uncivilized” peoples.
Meanwhile, Verse has taken a liking to the natives, even teaching one (Conor Burke) to hold out his hand and mime “How do you do?” on command as one would train a monkey. Her attitude over the short period of time covered by the production’s timeframe shifts with some rapidity, vacillating between smoldering and histrionics, with a decidedly Victorian view of the female psyche. Fauntleroy is a foppish man, presumably bisexual and not a little abusive towards those he considers under his thumb, as is the unhappy state of his man-servant Lovejoy (Daniel Vuillaume). Henry and Fauntleroy will have to clash when Verse goes mysteriously missing in the wild. There’s some hard choices to be made, testing loyalty to ideals and the idea of love. Savage Land becomes less about Verse and more about the warring views of these two egocentric men and, in a strange twist, the fate of the native “How Do You Do,” who becomes an unwitting pawn between forces outside his comprehension.
This all has the look of a Victorian melodrama, where characters are driven by the needs of the plot instead of growing organically from realistic situations. The stylized dialogue feels overwritten, and yet oddly unsubtle and lacking in poeticism, unable to escape its own circumlocution without resorting to flatly stating intent. Burns lacks the ingenuity to be the kind multi-layered feigned ingénue Verse needs to be in order to be the apex of a love triangle. It’s partly the fault of the script, which seems to forget to give her motivation beyond being the device in a power struggle, left to vacillate on whims as Nordmark sees fit. Danielson is more impressive as Fauntleroy, managing to bring some depth to an artist of some vulnerability overcompensating with excessive preening and viciousness. As Henry, Drake is unsympathetic in his internalized struggles of right and wrong, loyalty and intellectual pursuits.
Exploring the land of savages is a jungle where no paths converge. Like his two men, Nordmark seems pitched somewhere between the intellectual and romantic and unable to coalesce the two warring factions into a coherent arc. An unnecessary framing device of patrons viewing the men’s work in a gallery in the present day and the wearing of masks by the British colonists adds to the feeling that too much has been added with too little payoff. There may be a good idea for a story somewhere deep within this jungle, if only those within could see the forest for all the trees.
Savage Land continues thru September 2nd at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee (map), with performances Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 3pm and 8pm, Sundays 7pm. Tickets are $17, and are available online through BrownPaperTickets.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More info at NothingSpecialProductions.com. (Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos courtesy of Nothing Special Productions
Travis Barnhart (Viceroy Avendon, others); Conor Burke (How Do You Do, others); Celeste Burns (Verse); Scott Danielson (Fauntleroy); Matt Drake (Henry); Becca Kravitz (Lady Avendon, others), Daniel Vuillaume (Lovejoy); Ryan Frostig, Erin Gordon, Kaitlyn Majoy (ensemble)
behind the scenes
Mikey Laird (director); Brian Rohde (production manager); Chad Bianchi (set); John Kelly (lighting); Melissa Schlesinger (sound design); Jeff Shields (costumes); Barbara Little (props); Corey Pond (dramaturg); Steve Wisegarver (stage combat); Sierra Dufault (paintings); Kit Ryan (asst. production manager); Carrie Hill (asst. costumes)