Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - July 2, 2010

Get up, stand up

'The Shaker Chair' could be a call to action, but it needs more pep

by Kevin Kirby

In Adam Bock's one-act play "The Shaker Chair," a middle-aged woman becomes involved with a group of animal-rights activists engaged in a pitched battle against a local pig farm. As presented by the Pear Avenue Theatre in Mountain View, this ostensibly thoughtful play clocks in at roughly an hour and a quarter — shorter than your typical summer cineplex blockbuster. Sadly, one can't help but feel that this would be a better show if its running time were shorter still.

This is not to say that the script is too long. In fact, the arrow-straight plot could use a bit of fleshing out. Rather, the Pear's production is undermined by performances that are almost without exception energized, focused and accurate, but far too slow.

Crisp pacing is important to any show, but it is especially crucial in this case due to the nature of Bock's dialogue. Bock is fond of half-formed thoughts, one-word interjections, incomplete sentences and characters who talk over one another. In reviewing a previous production of "The Shaker Chair," the Louisville Courier-Journal described it thus: "(Bock's) dialogue is naturalistic, peppered with stops and starts ... that make his stage characters appear spontaneously real."

Unfortunately, when this sort of dialogue is presented in a plodding manner, with each actor politely waiting his or her turn before "interrupting," it makes the characters seem anything but spontaneously real. With the Pear's production, we are painfully aware that we are watching actors perform a minutely scripted fiction.

It's not that director Ann Kuchins has assembled a batch of bad actors; she just needs to help them pick up the pace. Timing aside, most of the cast give credible performances.

Carolyn Ford Compton plays Marion, a middle-aged woman who has just purchased a narrow, straight-backed, Shaker-style chair, apparently as part of her search for deeper spiritual meaning. Throughout the play, Marion does quite a bit of talking about the Shakers: their dedication to simplicity, to cleanliness, to rooting out sloth. The uncomfortable chair, she speculates, was their way of reminding us we should be on our feet, doing something useful.

But the catalyst that finally gets Marion out of that chair (and into the very messy world) is her friend Jean, played with verve by Beverley Griffith. Jean is a guerilla warrior in the battle against factory farming. Incensed by the cruelty and environmental degradation that she has witnessed at the pig farm, she is unshakable in her conviction that drastic actions are not only justified, but morally imperative.

Despite her reservations, Marion joins Jean and her co-conspirators on a 3 a.m. raid, and her home becomes a refuge for young eco-felons and, briefly, a rescued piglet. The former are played by John Beamer and Adrienne Walters; the latter, by a nonchalant pink and black newcomer named, appropriately, Pearblossom.

Beamer's performance is passionate and would probably be funny if not for the sluggish pace of the dialogue. Of all the cast, Walters seems most comfortable with the sort of verbal jostling that Bock's writing seeks to capture, and a few of her exchanges with Griffith have the snap of spontaneous speech.

Rounding out the cast are Roberta Morris and Vic Prosak as Marion's sister and brother-in-law, respectively. Prosak's character is a surly lout, motivated by seething anger at god-knows-what, and Morris, as his wife, has the horrid task of playing a woman who is too spineless to tell him off. Bock hints that there's more to their relationship than a sad cliche, but he never delivers on it, and their subplot ultimately goes nowhere.

It's possible that the show will tighten up over the course of its run and the actors' delivery will become more natural. As it stands now, the gaps in the dialogue prevent us from being caught up in the scenes' momentum, giving us time to recognize the script's shortcomings — specifically, a thin plot, a clumsily delivered climax, and an unsuccessful attempt to graft a symbol (the titular chair) onto a story about anti-pig-farm activism.

In the end, one suspects that Bock isn't all that interested in the evils of factory farming, per se. He devotes virtually no time to educating his audience on the issue, let alone to winning converts. Jean and her cohorts rattle off a few breathless, inchoate words about sewage spilling everywhere and pigs living in crowded pens, but that's the extent of it. The audience's philosophical complicity is more or less assumed.

For Bock, the pig story is merely a means to an end, just as foxes and grapes were for Aesop. It's a construct that leads us to the author's moral — a moral that he spells out for us in terms barely more subtle than in one of Aesop's fables. In short: "Complacency is bad; action is good."

And in the universe of this play, it doesn't matter if that action is violent, illegal, or utterly ineffectual. Why? Because that darn Shaker chair wants us to get up and do something, even if it's something that the nonviolent Shakers would have found abhorrent.

What: "The Shaker Chair," presented by Pear Avenue Theatre

Where: Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K, Mountain View

When: Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. through July 10, plus 2 p.m. performances on July 10 & 11.

Cost: Tickets are $25 for Friday and Saturday evenings and $20 for all other performances, with discounts for students and seniors.

Info: Call the box office at 650-254-1148 or go to http://www.thepear.org .

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