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Petrified Forest at the Masquers

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By Theresa de Valence - Posted on 24 August 2008

There’s one advantage to being nescient about theatre and film; I don’t know what to expect. However, considering the cast, I predicted The Petrified Forest, written by Robert E. Sherwood and directed by Marti Baer, would be a musical comedy.

How wrong could I be? Well—as it turns out—completely. Nonetheless, the play was an intriguing surprise. First produced in 1935 and made into a movie in 1936, it was credited with making Humphrey Bogart a movie star, as well as defining the gangster genre.

Last seen, Laura Morgan (photo), was a mannerly girl full of unexpressed mischief. As Gabby Maple, she is a resolute young woman who displays proficiency with the mundane routines of life, along with her utter dissatisfaction. Gabrielle shows us her innocence, her dreams, and we can’t help but sympathize with her wanderlust. Not that we approve of all of her choices. A complex character, unevenly portrayed, but a very satisfying development for this actress. (Photo, left by Jerry Telfer).

A disheveled Alan Squire (Kyle Johnson) (photo) drifts into the diner pulling the hot, dry desert dust with him. He is charming, but as his character unfolds, we find a jaded intellectual looking for something—anything—to give purpose to his life. He is a Depression era misfit with a poor self image. He cycles through various stages: we think he’s silly, he’s gone crazy, and finally, he’s a noble young man with a purpose—though perhaps a foolish one. Kyle wraps up his rôle with a flourish, an increasingly dramatic rendering.

Robert Taylor is a handsome man, particularly as the untamed and rumpled Duke Mantee. He’s a dangerous criminal who’s wound up tight. His restlessness makes itself felt; we become edgy. He reacts to the reckless actions of others with cool-headedness. Into this turmoil he weaves conflicting personal traits—becoming more human, more endearing, and much sadder. A most passionate performance.

I can’t really be fair about Boze (Craig Eychner). He did such a stunning job reminding me what it was like, as an innocent young woman, to have some unwelcome, aroused guy crawling up my leg that I shivered with distaste. In truth, Boze later not only reminds us how young and vulnerable he is, but we begin to admire him. Quite an accomplishment!

Gramp (George Adams) was my vote for Actor Most Enjoying Himself. Gramp is a self-indulgent imp, filling his declining years fomenting trouble and pinching whiskey. With great wistfulness accompanied by a gentle smile, he remembers back to his wilder youth. He is multifaceted: provocative, occasionally caring, and curious—a personality with whom one might enjoy a long chat—a sophisticated portrayal.

Jason Maple (John Burke) is Gabby’s dad, looking just like harassed, small businessmen everywhere. Immediately we feel his social and financial pressures. Like some small businessmen, he is small-minded with mediocre dreams. A bleak and depressing fellow, nicely done.

Ted Bigornia plays an outspoken lineman (intimating that a comedy might be in store after all) and Jackie, a hitman, who is dangerous and completely unfunny. Ted’s very athletic eyes, sinister moustache and evil smile make us frightened of his demoniac inclinations. A superb performance.

Edward Nason plays the second lineman and Pyles, the second hitman. Pyles is cool—a thug so dispassionate we are convinced that nothing will detract him from his murderous tasks.

A couple walks into the diner. Mr Chisolm (Michael Fay) was the exact image of a wealthy acquaintance of mine that I kept expecting him to greet me. He exhibits the ponderous demeanor of the stupendously wealthy—slow to react, then surprised that money won’t buy his way out of any problem.

Mrs Chisolm (Michael Haven) is a dark horse. She begins as a cool, good looking socialite who looks fabulous in a hat. Evidence suggests she is fairly repressed. After some astonishing antics with the whiskey bottle, another woman emerges. She’s a startling character who enriches the production.

The wealthy couple are followed into the diner by their chauffeur, Joseph (Monroe Benschop). Joseph is a soft-spoken man used to obeying orders, which he continues to do despite the turmoil in the diner. Later he is moved to pray for his life—a mildly moving experience surrounded by chaos.

When Peter Budinger appears first as Herb, an old man who comes into the bar to buy beer, his antics suggest an approaching comedy. (With Peter’s history, who would be surprised?) Yet shortly he reappears as Ruby, another hitman. He becomes larger. (Do the others shrink?) Peter is imposing as a taciturn thug, but not special—not his best rôle.

Legion Commander (Simon Patton) is not shown at his best, becoming a prisoner shortly after his arrival onstage. He is an unruly captive; with few lines, he makes clear his preference for a brawl.

The set, though simple, is especially effective. Easily reminding us of the days before air conditioning, the audience tastes and smells the hot, dry desert. We are refreshed when the actors drink cooling beer. Through the diner door, we visualize the sagebrush lazily tumbling by in the hot desert winds. The large, polished walnut radio is an effective focal point throughout the play.

The costumes and hair styles are superb: Gabby’s hair is memorable (better than photo, left), Jason Maple smells of engine oil, Alan Squire seems like he rolled the last mile to the diner in the dirt, Robert Taylor looks tasty, and Mrs Chisolm looks air-conditioned before such a look was even possible.

An unusual but very satisfactory experience.