Tiny Alice makes a Big Impact at Marin Theatre Company
I returned to Marin Theatre Company (MTC) last night for their season closer and my 32nd seen show for this year, Tiny Alice, by Edward Albee. Albee is notorious for exerting strong control over productions of his material, and I’m sure this show was no exception to that rule. In fact, this script may be where his desire for artistic management began, right here in San Francisco. The dramaturgical notes revealed extensive details about an ACT production of the play which made extensive cuts and revisions, to the great ire of Albee. Tiny Alice has also not been seen here in the Bay Area since that production in 1975. As a consequence, ACT did not produce an Albee script again until the mid 2000’s, and Tiny Alice gained a certain cult status, seemingly becoming an “untouchable” of the theatre world. This was not the case for MTC’s artistic director Jasson Minnadakis, who described an “obsession” (I thought that was a surprisingly strong word choice) with this script over a 20 year period. He claimed to be waiting for the perfect combination of cast, crew and theatrical setting to stage it himself. And for the most part, the team at MTC has succeeded with this revival. Last night’s audience, about a 3/4 full house, seemed to be thoroughly devouring the material, with two people standing up in their seats at the end and several local theatre industry folk visible to me within the audience.
The play is constructed like an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, and just when you think the material is all set in its perfect picture, someone (Albee) shakes it up again. This quality was particularly apparent in the first scene, a confusing and seemingly nonsensical interaction between two supporting characters. The second scene began to lay out the storyline, introducing the main character, a lay brother named Julian. We never truly find out why he has been summoned to “Miss” Alice’s home, a wealthy benefactor of his church. But various circumstances, some instigated by Alice and some not, combine to ensure that Julian remains in the house for quite some time. Supernatural elements gain prominence and symbolism, whether it is a fire that reveals itself through an onstage house model or an increased blurring of lines between reality and religious potency.
The play is presented in three acts, and while I was riveted and compelled for most of the production, there were several later instances where I felt the writing could have been tighter. In particular, the climax of the play goes on far too long and might have been more intriguing if it was presented in a “quieter” – and more intense – form. The third act on the whole seemed to repeat itself (from act 2) and not really advance the story.
Characterizations were suitably and memorably layered among the five person local cast. Actors Carrie Paff and Andrew Hurteau sharply etched the leading roles of Alice and Julian, with Hurteau in particular adding clear range to his performance within the initial character arc. Among the three supporting players, Mark Anderson Phillips stood out with an impish portrayal of Alice’s butler, who may have more to offer than it seems.
I can’t forget about the incredible set design, easily the best use of the MTC Lieberman Stage that I have ever seen. The set opened and closed as the story progressed, to denote different areas of Alice’s home. The model of the house (which can be seen here on MTC’s site) was extraordinarily large and vivid. Use of original music to transition between scenes added an evocative Masterpiece Theatre-ish flair to the story that I appreciated.
With this show, more than ever, MTC continues its manifesto of “Provocative Plays by Passionate Playwrights“.