Sunday, December 7, 2014

Solitaire by Joshua Crone

L - R - Richie Stephens, Julianne Kusmierczyk, Gabriel Miller Schwalenstocker, Varda Appleton, Joshua Crone,  Tim Bowman

By Joe Straw

“The healthy man does not torture others – generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers” – Carl Jung

I arrived at the Underground Theatre a little early anxious to see Joshua Crone’s Solitaire a play about a Marine in solitary confinement for the torture and death of a suspected terrorist.  (Street parking for this venue was a breeze.)

Well, I arrived too early, in fact no one was there, the door was locked, and not a light on anywhere, no posters, balloons, and little to indicate anything was happening on this night.

If I was alone I might have gone to that place that no one wants to go to.  You know, the anxious, dark box that surrounds one from time to time.  Did I arrive on the right date?  Time?  Place?  Imaginative sweat started to pour off my brow and thinking, “I’ve made a mistake”. But after a quick check, and soothing words from a trusting companion – everything was confirmed. 

With time to kill, we take a stroll and check out the nice neighborhood. We walked a couple of blocks south on Wilton Place, nothing to see or do, turned around and headed back to the theatre. Again I pulled on the door a couple of times, still locked, so we hiked north toward Sunset Boulevard and then back to the Underground Theatre, pulled on the door again, and still locked.

The time was now 7:46 pm and there was no sign of life, anywhere, not even on the sidewalk.  I was about to call it a night.  

But suddenly I heard “something” – an unlocking sound - and the door opened. We were greeted by a Marine, well a man in Marine garb, a corporal who seemed to be running the whole shooting match, running around, up into the light booth, and hitting the play button on “Halls of Montezuma.”

“Are you Joshua Crone?” – Me

“Yes.” – Joshua Crone

Solitaire written and directed by Joshua Crone at Underground Theatre is now playing through December 21, 2014 in Hollywood.  

Many of you know by now, well those who’ve been reading the blog that I’m from a military family.  I grew up outside of Ft. Campbell Kentucky, in a suburb on the Clarksville, Tennessee side. And indubitably Joshua Crone’s dialogue is truthful to the corps (pun intended), the manner in which he conducts himself, and the way he moves from one point to the next, is genuinely that of a military man. And I suddenly felt at home.   

Crone’s very simple truth is displayed in all of its glory in his new play Solitaire.  It is at times riveting, thought provoking, and humorous for a play that deals with the abhorrent nature of the torture of men.  

Private Jeremy Stills (Andrew Devitre) is in solitary confinement.  He lies silently on the floor in his cell wearing an orange prison uniform.  He appears to be alone. Projected on his cell window is an imagined Arab, Al Hassan (Andrew Devitre) playing solitaire, flipping cards one after the other, without rhyme, reason, or rules.

Stills has the appearance of a man who has been in solitary confinement far too long and that time alone has affected his mental judgment. He tells the Arab (long since dead) that he is playing the game all wrong.

“Does the prisoner have any requests?” - Guard

“Yes, the prisoner wants to see a chaplain.” – Private Jeremy Stills

This line speaks volumes. Stills is a man trying to reach out to someone who will get him grounded from all of the chaos that surrounds him.  Plunged alone in profound darkness he is awakened by the chaos that unexpectedly treads through his cell door at any given moment.  

The reality is that Stills has been convicted of a crime, of killing the prisoner, Al Hassan, with his bare hands. And so he sits in his cell, alone, waiting, thinking, and halfway understanding what fate awaits him and that his appeal may or may not happen.

Creeping thoughts bring his girlfriend, Veronica Blonski (Julianne Kusmierczyk), into his memory and imaginatively into his cell as he thinks of his past and glorious living, especially the time, after graduation, away from boot camp, that time on the beach with his one and only special girl.   

Corporal Buck Armond (Joshua Crone) interrupts his state of mind wanting to know why Stills hasn’t made his rack (bed).  Stills explains there’s no bed, no mattress, and no sheets. That doesn’t matter, that rack has got to be made.  (Marines)

L - R  Varda Appleton, Gabriel Miller Schwalenstocker

Commander Lana Burke (Varda Appleton) attorney for Stills unexpectedly interrupts saying they got some “good news” and some “bad news”.  The bad news is the media from his case is “not leaving town.” The good news is “the book deal” is gaining some traction and she’s got the contracts in her case.

“…push the appeal through before the book gets published.”Commander Lana Burke

(You are fighting for your life, and your attorney is pushing a book deal. Jeez!)

Stills, fantasizing, would like to see Commander Lana swimming in the bay and asks her to do it for him.

But Stills has a “not thinking clearly” problem.  He doesn’t want any part of the book deal, instead he asks for a picture of Commander Lana.  She obliges with a wallet size photo in a bathing suit.

“Promise you won’t get caught with it.” – Commander Lana Burke

This is a promise that is not kept as Stills uses that picture for his own sexual gratification until he is confronted once again by the guards.

Daniel Frank did an amazing job on the cell that housed the character Stills. It is absolutely mesmerizing. The clear glass served as a device that captured the images projected onto the glass, a ghostly apparition, or a memory, take your pick. And for a moment, the glass appears completely translucent as though it were not there; until a little rubber ball was throw against it. You could see in and I believe the actors could see little of the audience from reflection of the mirror. It is a set piece that can be moved at any given moment.

Joshua Crone is an intelligent writer and director, to that there is no question. But what I find perplexing about the play is that it lacks a definitive strong point of view, a perspective, a through line that gives his meaning, what he wants to tell us, from his assessment alone. What is the one grand thing Crone wants us to know about solitary confinement, or solitary for that matter? It’s not clear. Also, making use of the space, the cell to indicate what is real or imaginative would work better if defined.  In reality, move the cell upstage, and play the reality downstage, especially the wrestling scene.  Also, the work needs a time element, an exigent state that moves the process of his incarceration along to its final conclusion.  Crone is an excellent writer and manages to capture the essence of a working Marine. But in the context of this play we really need to know the objective of the character, how he gets it, and the conflict that stops him from getting it.

Gabriel Miller Schwalenstocker

Gabriel Miller Schwalenstocker plays Private Jeremy Stills a character locked up in solitary confinement that is in that deep dark place. Stills is in a confoundedly brooding motionless mental state, throughout the play.  The problem is Schwalenstocker plays Stills as though he had mental problems throughout, before the military, after boot camp, though his service, and into prison. We see this character as deplorably insane throughout the play.  Stills character has nowhere to go, no objective, and we experience no catharsis for the character.  For example, Stills asks for the Chaplain three times and, when the Chaplain arrives, he treats him with a curious air of detachment and distain rather than a savior who has come to help. Stills should treat the Chaplain as though God walked into his cell, be as sane as he can be, and then let the events decide where it will take him.  There is a lot more to be had with this character and Schwalenstocker has room to grow. That aside Schwalenstocker has a very good look and a nice presence on stage.

Andre Devitre plays Al Hassan, the prisoner killed by Stills.  We see little of Hassan – mostly unrecognizable video images projected on a dark glass and in a dark video.

Richie Stephens does yeomans work as Corporal Bowden and Lance Corporal Tidwell and has a very interesting military look.  

Tim Bowman is Sergeant Slattery and Private First Class Land and can slip into any military role Hollywood is willing to offer.  That said, there is more to be had with this character, in manner and deed.  

L - R Gabriel Miller Schwalenstocker, Julianne Kusmierczyk

Julianne Kusmierczyk plays Private First Class Summer Burgess and Veronica Blonski and I enjoyed her work tremendously.  Blonski goes off to college while her man is in boot camp and doesn’t hesitate to see someone else while he is away.  Kusmierczyk is excellent in her craft both in video and on stage.  

Joshua Crone plays Corporal Buck Armond, a man who gives his prisoner a living hell.  Forgetting that a little while ago this military man walked with him step for step. (In a manner of speaking.)  Crone’s characterization of Lieutenant Robert Reinhardt, a Chaplain, remains true to the priestly character. Crone could take the Armond character farther especially the voice.

Varda Appleton is very appealing as Commander Lana Burke and gives an especially likeable performance as the military mom, Tally Stills.  Appleton has no problems orchestrating her relationships with the other characters on stage and excels at giving the extra layers she needs. Splendid work!

Mark Craig also does an excellent job as Leonard Stills and we see in the video why his son turn out the way he did. Craig defines his character in moments on video and that is an excellent thing.

Other crew members are as follows:

Natalia Brozynska – Animation
Nicolas Baerenreuther – Flier
Jonathan Crone – Music
Gabriel Miller Schwalenstocker – Production Support

Run!  And take a Marine, or another a military veteran, and talk about it on the long way home. 

Reservation:  323-283-7316

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