Gavin – Leo Marks
Sarah – Ames Ingham
Boris – Bruce McKenzie
Irene – Lauren Campedelli
Jack – Rhys Coiro
Fabrizia – Dorie Barton
Director – Bart DeLorenzo
Scenic Designer – Jason Adams
Lighting Designer – Rand Ryan
Costume Designer – Ann Closs-Farley
Sound Design – John Zalewski
Associate Director – Adrian A. Cruz
Assistant Lighting Designer – Christopher Kuhl
Stage Manager – Niki Spruill
Assistant Stage Manager – Beth Mack
Producer – Erin Cass
October 5 – November 16, 2003
Lauren Campedelli (Irene), and Bruce McKenzie (Boris)
Gordon Dahlquist’s Messalina is not the first play in which the American Empire has been compared to the decadence and decline of the Roman Empire but his end-of-the-world dinner party, in the hands of director Bart de Lorenzo, is rife with zeitgeist. Pinteresque menace shades not only whatever is going on in the world depicted on a soundless TV set but shadows the obtuse indifference of the six characters who don’t seem to care whether the natural disaster is in the next continent or the next county.
Host Gavin (Leo Marks) has brought together screen mogul Boris (Bruce McKenzie) and actress Fabrizia (Dorie Barton) to peddle his historic script. Those ancient Roman orgies, triumphs and disasters are exciting and can be manipulated every which way, as soullessly as the cast do each other. Messalina, a depraved teen-age Roman Empress with her head in the sand for any number of unthinkable reasons, gives the play its title.
Gavin found his mysterious girlfriend Sarah (Ames Ingham) living under the stairs. Boris shows up with Irene (Lauren Campedelli), a neurotic doctor he met on an airplane. Voluptuous Fabrizia has in tow tall, dark and handsome Jack (Rhys Coiro).
As the evening progresses, the bed, which is stage center, becomes the scene of erotic writhing (fully clothed), though everybody stays sedately with the person he/she came with. A fuse blows so realistically that the whole theatre is plunged into darkness. But it’s part of the play and underscores the impression that disaster is on the move though this isn’t actually spelled out. Two of the couples leave and Sarah, left alone with the sleeping Gavin, closes the show by burning pages of a manuscript whose words she reads like an incantation. It’s a strong image of the death of intelligence and communication that foreshadows the end of everything.
The strong ensemble is anchored by Leo Marks’ intellectual Gavin, whose head trip makes him as blind to reality as the glorious hedonism of Fabrizia, displayed with delicious abandon by Dorie Barton. Ames Ingham projects the enclosed mystery of Sarah. Rhys Coiro brings a menacing sensuality to Jack. Lauren Campedelli immerses Irene in wacky self-absorption and Bruce McKenzie is a high-rolling Hollywood executive on a smug and gleeful power trip.
Jason Adams’ decadent old New York brownstone set establishes the tone by centering the huge double bed as its only furniture surrounded by little pyramids of books. Ann Closs-Farley’s costumes are shrewdly topical, with such telling details as Manohlo Blahnik-type shoes. Rand Ryan created the ambitious lighting design.
Bart de Lorenzo’s many-layered direction gives the play a turgid atmosphere of pitiful doom, both in the events and the people. These shallow characters are not people you’d want to live with or die with. They’re warnings.
– Laura Hitchcock
Gordon Dahlquist takes no prisoners in his disturbing and elegant new play – and that includes his intellectually beleaguered audience. This is not meant to say Messalina is something to avoid. See it, by all means; just don’t expect to relax and let the actors do all the work for you. Dahlquist makes his audience sit up and beg for it.
From the moment we first view Jason Adams’ remarkable New York City apartment set, we are smacked in the face by duplicity. At a glance, one might think what a romantic place this would be to live, but look closer, at the unretouched patches in the ceiling, the dinginess of the paint on the majestic old hardwood trim, and especially at the dwindling perspective of the room itself, which shrinks into the stage left horizon for no better reason than to make us all claustrophobic as hell. The collection of books tottering in stacks everywhere indicate a promise of scholarly inhabitants, but it’s soon admitted that they’re in piles "so we can watch TV and eat off them." Who are these people who live here?, we start to wonder. Guess, says Dahlquist.
Moodily lit by Rand Ryan, so dim the actors’ creamy faces are augmented by the screen of an omnipresent muted television set facing upstage or, later, by eerie candlelight which sends lengthening shadows up the minimized back wall, the point here is to make us work for it. Work, work, work; it’s exhausting work, trying to understand this spooky little play. But unlike other critics who didn’t quite get it and tried to write as though they did, I went back a second time – and am I grateful for the opportunity. I’d like to think of myself as someone fairly good at deciphering difficult material, but Messalina is, simply, almost too damn impermeable for anyone to unravel the first time around.
Look closely as the frustrated screenwriter Gavin (Leo Marks) tries to pitch the idea of a movie about Messalina, the former teenaged wife of the Emperor Claudius, who by complete accident came to rule the Rome but was eliminated after marrying her new lover and throwing an extended banquet-slash-orgy which included every kind of public debauchery imaginable. Gavin invites a producer, Boris (Bruce McKenzie) to come over for an impromptu party to discuss the idea, much to the chagrin of his companion-wife? girlfriend?-Sarah (Ames Ingham). Boris arrives with Irene, an inebriated biologist he just met at the airport (Lauren Campedelli), and proceeds to hump her against the doorframe in front of Sarah, whom he has also just met. With the arrival of a rich Fellini-esque jetsetting film star named Fabrizia (Dorie Barton) and her smoldering, middle-eastern appearing friend Jack (Rhys Coiro), the party is ready to begin.
The simple premise quickly gets complicated. Sarah, who worries about "what I know we’re all breathing," is not Gavin’s wife, but someone he found hiding under the staircase of the building, which is abandoned except for them – and they’re squatting there since his own apartment on the first floor has somehow been rendered uninhabitable. Whatever has occurred outside this flat becomes increasingly more frightening, all humor and forced gaiety instantly disappearing whenever anyone’s attention turns to whatever is being broadcast on the silent television. "I think I’m used to anything by now," says Gavin. "And then I watch the news."
Dahlquist is hardly subtle in his quietly developing comparison between the fall of the Roman Empire and our own current administration. The program only gives away the location, not the time the play is supposed to take place, but if at first the thought is it might be occurring immediately after the collapse of the World Trade Center, it soon becomes apparent it could be happening somewhere in the not-too-distant future. One soon suspects the horrors of 9/11 are only the tip of the iceberg compared to what these people have experienced – and what they are trying like hell to forget as they down more wine and strange green drinks called Frozen Extinctions.
When someone pulls back the draperies to reveal plywood nailed over broken windowpanes and black smoke smudges fanning inward from the corners, things get even scarier. Still the party careens on and the brittle drawing room banter continues, punctuated by Fabrizia’s shrill laughter and Irene’s graphic sexual imaginings. No one wants to admit, as Boris finally explodes after his 800th glass of wine, insisting they all know what the government is doing to them, but would rather bury the thought as though it were happening to someone else.
As with anything he touches with the magic wand of his quirky imagination, director Bart DeLorenzo is the quintessential person to direct this play, as he proved to be two seasons back with Dahlquist’s Delirium Palace at Inside the Ford. Bart just gets it. Even after the performance, he admits with a pleased grin that he loves to ask patrons departing from the theatre why they think Sarah does what she does at the end. Bart was positively thrilled to tell me everyone comes up with entirely different explanations.
I have seen enough of this guy’s work over the past few years to see a pattern emerging. Nowhere but in a DeLorenzo show do actors have the freedom to explore long pregnant pauses between their lines. This is because each moment is obviously explored by DeLorenzo and the actor individually, so that by performance time, one can see the thoughts clearly behind every motion and facial expression within each pause. With most other directors, this would be just plain be indulgent.
For DeLorenzo to again collaborate with Dahlquist proves a match made in theatrical heaven. The result is pure Pinter, brought sharply into 2003 and filled with downtown-y urban updating. The cast is ambrosial, surely any director or playwright’s dream ensemble. Messalina is a dense, richly challenging experience, filled with sly humor, amazing insight, and enough mystery to creep out your dreams for a long time to come.
– Travis Michael Holder
Graphic Design – Colleen Wainwright