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Berkeley Daily Planet, 5-27-03

Play Examines Details of a Day


The short version of this review is that the Shotgun Players’ new production, Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood,” is terrific. If you have any interest or response or even curiosity about the famed Welch poet, his poetry or maybe just 20th-century literature, go get a ticket.

If those subjects leave you cold, the show is still a worthwhile investment for its extraordinary display of ensemble work. The eight actors, four each, male and female, never broke character or hesitated with a false movement throughout the evening. There were no lost seconds. Since they’re tossing around over 50 different characterizations through an unbroken, often dance-like flow of action on and off a small, bare stage, this is no mean accomplishment.

The actors, a remarkably gifted lot, each create far too many characters to identify in the usual way. There are no stars in this performance. But there are eight talented actors who each deserves recognition: Gary Dailey, Jeffrey Hoffman, Gwen Larsen, Rami Margron, Desiray McFall, Lisa Patten, Brent Rosenbaum and Sean Tarrant. The movement designer, Amy Sass, is credited by the cast for the imaginative patterning of their movements; she, in turn, insists that the cast developed their own design.

The action traces an ordinary day in the coastal Welch town of Llareggub, starting with the pre-dawn dreams of the blind Captain Cat who hears the voices of his drowned sailors, who want contact with life on earth. Through the day, many characters recur, such as the town floozy who shockingly beds most anyone who asks (this was, after all, largely written in the forties) but sings wistfully of a boy who kissed her before he died. There is no particular plot. This is simply the story of the lives of the people who live in this little spot on earth.

There are many marvelously funny characters such as the twice-widowed lady who still terrifies the ghosts of her husbands with her compulsive housekeeping; the lanky postman who reads the mail before delivering it and vigorously expresses his opinions to the official recipients, and the courteous husband who spends his time fantasizing about poisoning his wife.

Clearly, much of the play is devoted to overtly funny material. Not all of it, by any means. There are touching love relationships and more than one painful situation; we’re talking about a full day in a whole town. But the humor presents an interesting problem. On opening night, the comic portions of the play, although well and appropriately acted, didn’t trigger much laughter. Quite possibly Thomas’ lavish reliance on poetic license is responsible. His language is unquestioningly powerful, but probably easier to comprehend in writing than by ear.

Here’s an example: “Mr. Utah Watkins counts, all night, the wife-faced sheep as they leap the fences on the hill, smiling and knitting and bleating just like Mrs. Utah Watkins.” There are many much more extravagant usages. It might be helpful for someone unfamiliar with Thomas’ work to at least glance through a copy of “Under Milk Wood” before seeing the play.

Thomas didn’t write this for the stage. BBC had given him a contract for a radio play, so there was no need to observe the usual niceties that make it possible for one scene to follow another in some kind of coherent fashion. On radio, it wouldn’t matter if there was no way for a couple of actors to get off stage before the scene suddenly changed to some completely different place. The ensemble handles this problem by simply having actors change personalities. They become someone else. That’s all.

It works.

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