Friday, October 24, 2014

"The Killing of Sister George" - A Serious Misunderstanding of Tone

By Judd Hollander

There's a fine line between serious drama, parody and outright camp, a fact director Drew Barr sadly doesn't seem to grasp in The Actors Company Theatre's revival of Frank Marcus' The Killing of Sister George.

In 1964 London, June Buckridge (Caitin O'Connell), a hard drinking actress with a hair trigger temper, has for the past six years been playing the beloved character of "Sister George" on the BBC radio drama "Applehurst". However with the show slipping in the ratings and rumors flying about an impending cast shakeup, June finds herself in a state of continual agitation, one occasionally verging on panic. Making matters even more uncertain is the impending arrival of Mercy Croft (Cynthia Harris), an officious and somewhat staid woman who works in the BBC programming office. June meanwhile is taking out her frustrations on her live-in lover Alice (Margot White), a seemingly young girl who likes to play with dolls and write poetry and with whom June a rather intense sadomasochistic relationship. Also dropping by from time to time is Madame Xenia (Dana Smith-Croll), June and Alice's neighbor and also a practicing psyche.

Groundbreaking when it first was premiered, and still having the potential for being something quite powerful, what should have been a strong work about people's insecurities, the fear of being forgotten and a look at relationships that were once unspoken, comes off instead as totally campy. Making matters worse is the continual staidness of the production, with virtually none of the elements of the show coming across as remotely real. To be fair, Marcus' text contains a great deal of repetitiveness, but Barr fails to compensate for this. Also having the characters come off as rather stereotypical doesn't do anything to help matters.

What's most frustrating of all are the flashes of brilliance appearing here and there which serve to show how, in the right hands, the work has the potential to be something really special. Most of these coming from O'Connell, such as when June learns not only the fate of Sister George, but also that of the characters with whom Sister George has interacted; thus showing how she really feels about the character and its legacy. There's also the matter of Alice's true role in her relationship with June, and what Mercy's ultimate motives are in her supposed interest in Alice's writing ability. Unfortunately the most compelling moments of the production occur in the final section of the play, and happen far too late to negate all the missteps that have come before. Another problem occurs in the play's final moments when June reacts upon learning what the future may have in store for her both professionally and personally. Yet her reaction, which could be one of desperation, anger or defiance - any of which would make perfect sense - comes off instead as totally matter of fact. It's as if June is in denial about what's unfolding; something completely not in keeping with what's been shown of the character up to that point.

While none of the performances are terrible to watch, none of the actresses are able to make their characters all that interesting. It also doesn't help that the show's pacing is so slow, the entire experience feels elongated to the point where one is just praying for something to happen, instead of each scene and situation feeling almost exactly like one that has come before.

Narelle Sissons' set, filled with dolls and doll houses is interesting, though one can't help but wonder why June, who supposedly rules the roost, would allow Alice to dictate the choice of decor for their home. This being just another point in June and Alice's relationship which needed to be made clearer. Having the characters running up and down the aisles of the theatre was a nice touch.

File this production of The Killing of Sister George as a major misstep and here's hoping the company's next effort is a better one.

The Killing of Sister George
by Frank Marcus

Featuring Caitlin O'Connell (June Buckridge), Margot White (Alice "Childie" McNaught), Cynthia Harris (Mrs. Mercy Croft), Dana Smith-Croll (Madame Xenia).

Set & Costume Design: Narelle Sissons
Light Design: Mary Louise Geiger
Sound Design & Original Music: Daniel Kluger
Props Design: Samantha Shoffner
Production Stage Manager: Jeff Meyers
Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Burns
Production Manager: Cate Digirolamo
Technical Director: Stephen Sury
Casting: Kelly Gillespie
Publicist: Richard Hillman
TACT General Manager: Christy Ming-Trent
Marketing: The Pekoe Group
Directed by Drew Barr

The Beckett Theatre
Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or

Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes, with one intermission
Closes: November 1, 2014

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