Arts Listings

The Theater: ‘The Shaker Chair’ at Ashby Stage

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Tuesday December 18, 2007

Obie winner Adam Bock’s new play, The Shaker Chair, at Ashby Stage in a joint production of the Shotgun Players with Encore Theatre Co., opens with one woman sitting on the title piece, expostulating with another woman, who’s curled up in another kind of chair crying over a book.  

The first woman goes on about Shakers, and their admirable work ethic, which is why their chair isn’t so great for sitting. A third enters the stark, light-filled room and takes the other two to task—the first for “being asleep,” the second for crying and doing nothing about it. 

All of this is fleshed out with witty, skewed dialogue, sometimes overlapping or simultaneous, with occasional silences, awkward and otherwise.  

The lines and repeated words and phrases that are batted back and forth like a shuttlecock don’t always directly refer to the matter (or matters) at hand, so by inference, the audience is in on the conversation, a little like a latecomer or eavesdropper. 

This continues throughout the play, though pretty quickly the story’s clear, clearer than the humorously tangled conversations it’s inferred from: Marion (a sometimes ebullient, sometimes diffident Frances Lee McCain) is putting up her sister Dolly (Nancy Shelby), who is upset with her husband, Frank (Will Marchetti). Marion’s old friend Jean (Scarlett Hepworth) is an environmental activist, endeavoring to involve Marion (or at least her car) in a nighttime raid on a nearby farm that’s spilling sewage. Meanwhile, Jean tries to coach—or boss—Dolly about men, romance and what’s passé about it all. Dolly doesn’t appreciate it. 

The gradually accruing plot works itself out through offhanded, even loopy dialogue as the various characters express themselves. A pair of watchcap-bonneted co-conspirators (Andrew Calabrese and Marissa Keltie) show up with Marion and Jean, back from a night’s mischief on the farm.  

Frank shows up at Marion’s to reel Dolly back in, and later to contend with Marion, all the while gushing about her lawn. There’s a lot of goofy reasoning and trick explanations. It finally does end up with some change—or resolution—but only through personal tragedy, while the rest apparently slips back to normal. 

The comic dialogue is Bock’s strong suit, and all cast members (as directed by Tracy Ward)are well up to their marks, displaying excellent timing and characterization. Word for Word’s Nancy Shelby is particularly adept at presenting a character who could appear as just a flakey ditz, making her laughable yet sympathetic, a real part of the ensemble of various types and their self-stated concerns. She’s also good at the pauses, the silences which offset the loopiness with a kind of existential eloquence. 

Of the two other sides of the triangle, as it were, McCain takes the lead with much gusto, tempered with a stern, sometimes sorrowful reflectiveness, while Hepworth is appropriately severe, brusque even, yet surprisingly soft around the edges whenever the edges are showing.  

The design of the interior of Marion’s severe country house (James Faerron’s set), which provides the stage for this little agon—or passion—is fine on all levels, the lighting (Heather Basarab) indirect by day and night, and the sounds (Sara Huddleston) veer from crickets to claxon alarms, bucolic to industrial, adding texture to the sense of light and darkness on this stark palette. 

(Shotgun’s productions continue to explore what’s becoming something of a house style in look and feel, a pleasing, ongoing trend.) 

The difficulty with the play is that not enough is really worked through, except the humorous banality and occasional indirection of the dialogue. The plot’s pretty pat, though it does go from screwball sitcom of a very professional order, through a quick upsurge of melodrama, into a kind of morality play denouement. The torquing or melding of forms is at least as old as Euripides’ Alcestis, but here it doesn’t run interference for—or cover—a somewhat bland plot which processes the story, like the factory farm Jean’s protesting. more than shape it as it moves through slightly hackneyed complications and resolution. 

There is, by the way, an uncredited pig in the cast; even the playwright seemed hesitant about mentioning it, but word got around before opening. “Bratty” (short for Bratwurst, the diminuative monicker apparently pinned on diplomatically by Shotgun artistic director Pat Dooley, who took the boar in), in a porcine cameo, appropriately hogs the stage for a moment, not once uttering a clever line. 



8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday through Jan. 27 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. $20-$30. 841-6500. 


Photograph: Frances Lee McCain in The Shaker Chair.