A History of the American Film

Nathaniel Yost and the Salad Girls
Nathaniel Yost and the Salad Girls

There is a certain, almost ineffable, quality of striking mimesis that courses through the entirety of The Summer Company’s staging of Christopher Durang’s 1978 bizarrely (at times even baroquely) satirical piece A History of the American Film that gives the already fantastic play an added element of hutzpah to an audience member with a background specializing in film.  As the audience begins to trickle in, the players are already seated, as if in a film theatre themselves, singing along to a rousing number as black and white film footage plays on the awning above them so they audience may partake in their film-watching experience.  This continues for several minutes to a point of almost diluting the momentum of the opening.   However, the first moments of the first scene subtly captivate in such a way that it makes up for the near-monotony of the introductory singing.

The players on stage, rapt with attention, watch as a hyper-melodramatic silent film—reminiscent of the hyperbolic emotiveness of films like Sunrise (1927) or Broken Blossoms (1919)is acted out in front of them as the audience is shown the narration captions of the film on the awning.  This silent film’s plot is a standard baleful tale: a nameless mother—played by tremendously expressive Jillian Lesaca, who vibrantly appears later in the play as Clara–finds herself unable to care for her newborn child, and beseeches God to take the child away from her safely only to die tragically (and not-surprisingly) shortly after the child is left at an orphanage.  Every trope is marvelously enacted, but what is most compelling are the subsequent reactions of the players acting as the audience.   Played with relish, each actor demonstrates the quintessential gamut of responses to the film—the spirited hopefulness for the mother; the repulsed disdain that any woman would dare be incapable of caring for her offspring—in such a way that transforms the experience of watching this multidimensional presentation of the film watching process.The Cast

The efficacy and fastidiousness with which the actors pull off the initial scene of film-watching is ultimately what catalyzes the transition into the meat of play so brilliantly.  History tells the divinely surreal story of Loretta—played with phenomenally ironic golly-gee-whiz pluckiness by Colleen Garrison—the orphaned daughter of the nameless mother in the first scene, as she tries to navigate through the harrowing perils of being a “nice girl” in the big city.  As passed out, fatigued and overwhelmed, a prototypical scoundrel, Jimmy—the ace-in-the-hole, wise-guy sneering Frank Schurter—settles into the bench next to her, which, of course, leads to a whirlwind romance between the two after Jimmy ushers her away to his home in the derelict, noir-esque Shantytown.  History, is artfully constructed by Durang (who was nominated for a Tony for this play, and won the award for Best Play in 2013 for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) to traverse the multitude of distinct genres that characterized the evolution of American popular cinema while simultaneously chronicling Loretta’s growth and utterly idiotic love for Jimmy.  These transitions, in less skillful hands than the incredibly talented cast and director (John E. Lane Jr.) and crew, may be disorienting or clunky, but these genre migrations are dizzyingly seamless and uproariously funny.

Colleen Garrison as Loretta and Frank Schurter as Jimmy
Colleen Garrison as Loretta and Frank Schurter as Jimmy

As Loretta and Jimmy entangle in a romance in Shantytown, they embark on the musical-portion (featuring the oddly sweet “Shantytown Romance” ballad) of the narrative, in which Loretta is the ideal domestic woman (making profoundly blissful existential remarks like “Look, I’m IRONING!”) heedless to the shady goings-on of her lover.  Upon the introduction of the scorchingly surly Bette—played by Jill Jeffrey with saucy vamp splendor—who is Jimmy’s original lover, the play cycles from musical, to grimy noir/crime film, to courtroom/prison drama (the sickeningly hilarious drama of which hinders on one of the funniest miscarriage scenes [it is awful, but it must be seen to be understood]), to a completely dreadful screwball comedy where, I believe, the actors rhythm and pacing and comfortability with the ludicrousness of the plot they are in really hits a wonderful, breakneck stride.

Throughout these genres, Loretta is sentenced to jail, released by divine intervention, accused of another crime, put on a chain-gang where she meets the down on his luck Hank (played with the thundering, authentically old-timey charm of Nathaniel Yost). The two then transcend the play’s meta-examination of Western film; both parodying the trope and satirizing the absurdity of the production of Western film. Tim Syicarz’s cantankerously flamboyant Director Fritz Von Lefling is at once offensive and stupendous.  All the while, Jimmy has died several times, lived with Bette in a Phantom of the Opera-esque dreary home, and hunted down Loretta to no avail.  And several side vignettes pop up, including a daft take down of Grapes of Wrath (1940) and the outrageously strange but ultimately ecstatic musical interlude performed by Hank as he embarks on his Hollywood career to escape the chain-gang that functions as an ode to salad. It makes almost no sense, is beautifully choreographed and is one of the highlights of the entire show. And all this is before the intermission and Jimmy shipping off to war.  It’s a berserk and fantastic, and though the stage design is minimal, the performances and production carry the lunacy into the realm of giddy entertainment.

Jill Jeffrey as Bette and Colleen Garrison and Loretta, background is Tyler Jennings, Sarah Williams,LaMar Darnell Fields, and Eric Matthews
Jill Jeffrey as Bette and Colleen Garrison and Loretta, background is Tyler Jennings, Sarah Williams,LaMar Darnell Fields, and Eric Matthews

History has some problematic moments of racial and gender stereotyping that undermine the talents of the actors playing the roles (who tackle these characters masterfully) that could have served a reworking.  But on its whole, History is an inimitable delight that genuinely surprised me in it’s execution. The commentary on film (and the subtle hints of spectatorship versus participation and reality versus fabrication), the dismantling of genre and tropes, and the interesting remarks on gender and archetypes (seen in the resentful bonding of Bette and Loretta that plays like a reverse White Christmas (1954)).  At one point near the end of the first act, Loretta shouts “I feel like the 1930s are never going to be over!” and if it means digging in these tropes a little more, than quite frankly, my dear, I just don’t give a damn if they ever do end.

Special thanks to The Summer Company for complimentary press tickets.

A History of the American Film runs at Duquesne University’s Genesius Theatre through August 28th. For tickets and more information, click here.

Photos courtesy of Justin Sines.