In recent years The Chautauqua Theater Company has consistently been among Chautauqua Institution most rewarding cultural programs. Under the astute leadership of Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch and Resident Director (and former co-Artistic Director) Ethan McSweeny, CTC has offering poignant and provocative, expertly-written new plays alongside riveting interpretations of such classics as Shakespeare's Macbeth (2010), Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (2013) and more -- all featuring talented and intuitive young actors transitioning from graduate work to full-time professionals.
In continuance of this winning alchemy, for the 2014 season a gifted playwright familiar to Chautauqua audiences--the New York-based Molly Smith Metzler -- was given her first CTC commission, a mainstage production of The May Queen directed by Benesch. Metzler had previously participated in the company's New Play Workshops in both 2010 and 2011 with "signature staged readings" of her works Close Up Space and Carve.
And like Carve before it, The May Queen -- which runs through Sunday, July 27 at Chautauqua Institution's Bratton Theater -- is an intense play, crackling with humor and raw emotions that erupt to the surface. Both works delve into the disparity between one person's perception and another's reality, until the resulting tension resolves itself in unforeseen ways. But where Carve gave audiences a glimpse at the personal and professional facades erected by a Brooklyn artist and his assistant amidst the stresses and constrictions of the New York City scene, in The May Queen Metzler takes us upstate to her hometown of Kingston, NY, where former high school classmates find themselves working at the same humdrum insurance company The Vallor Group.
The playwright depicts Kingston as a place with its own very specific strains and limitations. Metzler's Kingston is a small city, so much so that it seems to suffocate individuals seeking to create their own identities and realize their own aspirations beyond the bright, suffocating fluorescent lights of the office, the chain-store commercialism and the beloved local high school tradition of crowning a May Queen -- akin to a homecoming queen.
Such is the case for Metzler's highly distinguishable characters: David Lund, a straight-laced, nerdy type moonlighting as a psychopathology student; Gail Gillespie, an energized, almost manic mother and part-time fitness instructor; and Mike Petracca, the popular jock-turned-respected local icon who manages the majority of the insurance company's sales accounts but still struggles with the physical and emotional repercussions of a tragic car accident from his youth.
The plot of the play hinges on the emotional and professional upheaval this close-knit group of employees faces when former May Queen Jen Nash joins the company as a temp worker--particularly when it is revealed that Mike, who had nominated Jen for the May Queen crown, has been nursing an obsession for her and feverishly trying to speak to her. Jen has avoided him and rejected all his entreaties.
The May Queen is briskly-paced at 100 minutes, without an intermission. And though it is billed as a comedy, it would be more accurate to call it a "tragicomedy," in which a first half replete with irreverent yet endearing one-liners and pithy contemporary references to social media sites give way to an unwavering psychological excavation of both Jen and Mike's different internalizations of the past. Slow-burning revelations of their respective backstories pull back the curtain on each person's clouded perception of the other, until their combined high school memories and current realities converge to form the complete picture of their true relationship to one another.
The effectiveness of the play is wholly dependent on the actors' ability to fully articulate the individual essence of each nuanced, multilayered character -- not merely the words they utter but their emotional presence they project. Based on this criterion alone, The May Queen was a resounding success.
In the role of Mike Petracca, Joe Tippett displayed tremendous theatrical range, from the brash, drunken behavior of the opening scene to the subtle changes in inflection or sudden shift in emotional dynamic that made for such a poignant denouement. Emma Duncan was pitch-perfect as the guarded and enigmatic Jen Nash, delivering a stunning monologue midway through the play that served as the pivotal moment in the drama's trajectory (If [Mike] knew me, he would not be stuck. He would be horrified"). As Gail and David respectively, Mary Bacon and Greg Fallick were each thoroughly funny, empathetic, and convincing, helping to set the tenor of the play. A strong performance was also turned in by Kate Eastman as Nicole Chee, the domineering young manager in way over her head.
Once again, Vivienne Benesch and the Chautauqua Theater Company have delivered a winning production of provocative and intensely thoughtful subject matter melded with inspired character portrayals.
For more information about The May Queen and Chautauqua theater Company's remaining productions for the 2014 summer season, visit theater.ciweb.org.
This article has been cross-posted at postpostrock.com.