Howard Korder’s “In a Garden,” is now receiving its world premiere on South Coast Repertory’s Julianne Argyros Stage.
Written by Howard Korder. Directed by David Warren.
South Coast Repertory’s production “In A Garden,” Howard Korder’s newest play, is a fascinating and engrossing evening of theater, both expertly directed and acted. Right from the start I was hooked by this superbly crafted, well-acted play, knowing that for the next few hours it would be like unwrapping the cellophane on an exotic yet unfamiliar delicacy that offered new insights on a familiar theme, but with an entirely unexpected center.
All four actors in the play shine in their roles, each one enlisting the kind of timing and experience only well-seasoned stage actors can deliver, making it a resoundingly satisfying evening of theater.
Mark Harelik as Othman, the Minister of Culture of a fictional Middle Eastern country, crackles with hawk-like intelligence and employs a masterful delivery of Korder’s dialogue. Of all the actors in the play, he truly seems to grab the evening and run with it, relishing what is clearly every character actor’s dream come true: “The Character Part.” Meaty, mysterious and biting, Harelik’s Othman is a formidable stage presence. As an actor it is clear he is enjoying every moment of inhabiting the mysterious, multi-faceted Othman. And, frankly, as a theater patron, this is gold.
Also shining in his part is Matt Letscher as the idealistic young American architect, Andrew Hackett. Letscher’s Hackett has a wonderfully American buoyancy which he displays in mercurial arcs of thought reminding me of Michael J. Fox, whose work is often undervalued for his unique emotional agility.
“In a Garden” is a tour de force of dueling wits and emotions, occasionally overtly displayed, yet with seething undercurrents just below the surface. Korder’s writing requires actors with a supple facility of their emotions, to balance moving the story forward while enduring a constant breakdown of communications and culture clashes. This particular SCR world premiere provides an excellent showcase for doing just this.
The sets are well designed and a fitting backdrop to both the rise and fall of the Minister of Culture’s palace in Aqaat, Korder’s invented country that clearly resembles the Iraq of recent history. The palace is both imperious, yet, still lacking true refinement. (In other words, overwhelming in scale, but still a bit tacky.)
The sets, by Christopher Barreca, were well designed and a fitting backdrop to both the rise and fall of the Minister of Culture’s palace in Aqaat. The stage is flanked by a structure at once imposing and formal, yet still lacking a certain cultural refinement.
It’s a fine set choice for a play about men dwarfed by their environments, longing to create something more ethereal, lasting and, more importantly, the kind of place that is home to a soul.
The scene changes were swiftly rendered on the wings of lively music keeping the pace and essence of the play moving forward without any loss of momentum.
I felt the direction was, as all good direction should be, surefooted, yet ultimately undetectable to the audience. I’ve always felt that the best kind of director is one, essentially, not noticed by the audience.
What I did notice was the curious story, and its circular nature within the dialogue. None of Korder’s details are ever gratuitous. Korder wastes nothing, turning even the most innocuous intimacies into subtle hints of things yet to be revealed. If one is listening.
The scenes are, for the most part, economical and well paced, occasionally brisk, but never rushed. The actors flesh out their characters, shedding just enough required for each scene without giving too much away and spoiling the final moving climax of the play.
I did, however, feel the play was a bit oddly constructed. Originally I thought the play was a more “Sleuth”-like, two-person play, except that this production introduces in a few late comers in the second act.
After much discussion we finally meet the dictator (Brother Najid, expertly played by a Saddam-like imperious Jarion Monroe) whom the audience already heard so much about in Act One.
And there are also two other lovely cameos towards the end of the play, as well. Ironically, one of the most memorable scenes in the entire play is its final scene offering a lovely moment of subtle dramatic exchange between talented stage newcomer, Phillip Vaden, as an American soldier and Letscher’s Hackett.
All the characters in “In a Garden” are instrumental to the storyline in their own ways. All the actors contribute making “In a Garden” inevitably a more sophisticated ensemble piece, rather than merely just a character study or political drama. Again, the casting for the show was impeccable.
All told, every audience member wants to watch people doing what they love and who are masters of their craft, and I can guarantee SCR audiences will get their money’s worth in this weighty, thoughtful World Premiere of Howard Korder's “In a Garden.”
Be sure not to miss In a Garden enjoying its run now at South Coast Rep through March 28th, 2010.