Saturday, September 2, 2017

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (Play version - The Empty Space 2017)

I previously reviewed the novella version of Of Mice and Men here. This is the play version, which Steinbeck himself adapted from the book.

I wasn’t sure I would get to see this particular one, because our long trip to see the eclipse left us with just a single weekend which was already full. My wife (who didn’t go with us for the eclipse) and eldest daughter (who came back immediately after the eclipse so she wouldn’t miss too much school) went and saw it while we were gone, and they said it was good. My second daughter really wanted to see it, and we managed to work things so that she and I could go together.

I won’t rehash the plot or my prior observations - read the previous post for that - but I will mention some things specific to the play.

I have reviewed quite a few plays at The Empty Space. Over the last several years, since the kids have been old enough to either come along or to manage by themselves for an evening, we have been to more than half of their productions - and not just the Shakespeare. For a shockingly low price, you can count on seeing high production and artistic values on display in a tiny space with modest budgets. Of Mice and Men was yet another example. Simple sets, an intimate setting, and strong work by the cast.

The lead parts of George and Lennie were played by Nick Ono and Trayvon Fletcher, respectively. Nick Ono has had quite a few major parts this year, whether showing he can sing (and choreograph) in If/Then to his turn as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. This play called for more nuance than either of the others, and I was impressed with his interpretation.

Trayvon Fletcher has really made his mark on The Empty Space since his debut last year in Othello. (He was credited as Trayvon Trimble - now as Trayvon T. Fletcher - I’d be curious to know the story behind that.) Anyway, he has been part of a number of plays since, and it is obvious that he is developing as an actor with experience. He was a natural choice for Lennie - I can’t think of a better one. He captured the naivety and fearfulness of the part, while convincingly looking the part of the large bear-man. 

 Nick Ono (George) and Trayvon Fletcher (Lennie)

The usual suspects, so to speak, filled the other parts. Carlos Vera gave a malevolent turn as the loner Carlson, Bob Kempf said his few lines as The Boss. Brittany Beaver got the only female part as the unnamed “Curly’s Wife.” She is a BC theater student who seems a bit green at this point. She did a competent job, and very much looked the part, but wasn’t particularly memorable. I imagine time and experience will do their work. 

 Brittany Beaver (Curly's Wife)

One particular performance which really stood out was that of Travis McElroy as Candy, the older worker relegated to latrine duty after losing his hand. His quiet desperation and agony, his flicker of hope, and the crushing realization that he too will likely never fulfil his dreams were all portrayed in heart-rending manner by McElroy. It was a memorable performance.

Travis McElroy (Candy)

The character of Slim is important too, and Ryan Lee played that role. I have mentioned Lee previously for his superb turns as Tom in The Glass Menagerie and Mortimer in Arsenic and Old Lace. Lee is becoming one of those actors I would go see regardless of the play. In this case, he was outstanding; Slim has to be a bit aloof, but also sympathetic. He is, after all, the only character who understands the impossible choice that George will face, and the only one who really gets the relationship between George and Lenny. Slim also has to navigate the treacherous waters of the failed marriage of Curly. He is the tall, dark, and handsome guy that she wants to flirt with, but he must keep his job and stay out of trouble. It’s not an easy part to play, and I was impressed. It is hard to believe Lee is still a student. 

It was also interesting to see Nolan Long again. He was hilarious as Peter, the illiterate servant, in Romeo and Juliet, and he was convincing as Curly, the son of the boss, with a Napoleon complex.

Nolan Long (Curly) and Nick Ono (George)

One final mention is that of Shaquille Hill as Crooks. This is an interesting part as the only black character. Adding to the layer here is that Fletcher is also black, so the conversation where Crooks explains to Lennie why he can’t be friends with the other men is interesting to watch. I don’t know how they kept straight faces, but they did. I guess that is why they are actors. Hill has stage presence, and I look forward to seeing him in future productions.

There is one difference between the play and the novel that I thought was worth noting. (Spoilers!)

The play ends with the final gunshot. The lights go out, and that is it. It is quite an effective ending. (There were some sobs in the audience.) I am torn, though, about whether the book ending is better. In that case, after the final event, Slim and George walk off together, devastated by the way things had to end. The clueless Carlson gives the final line. “Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?” I can’t decide. Both endings are effective.

I am really enjoying having children old enough to appreciate more difficult themes in both literature and drama. My daughter liked the play (enjoyed might be too strong of a word) - she has always had an affinity for tragedy, and a high body count is actually a plus for her. My hope, of course, is that all my children develop empathy and an understanding of the complexity of life and ethics. Plays like this can be a part of that.

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