By Bill Saunders
Peter Brook, the director, said that any empty space can be a stage. An actor walks across it, while someone else is watching, and that is all it takes to create theatre. This is – almost – where we find ourselves in the production of The Woolgatherer by William Mastrosimone at Shadowbox Studios in Durham.
The Woolgatherer was written 1979 by Mastrosimone, who also gave us Extremities and Bang Bang, You’re Dead. This is the inaugural production of a new theatre company, led by David Berberian, who, with Jeri Lynn Schulke, stars in the two-hander, directed by Derrick Ivey.
The play is set entirely in a small dingy apartment. It centers around Rose and Cliff, two neurotic people searching for love. Rose is a nervous woman who is haunted by the past; due to her hemophilia, she’s closed herself off from the world, living in a world of castoffs – dead plants, furniture gleaned from the streets, a boarded-up window, and a closet stuffed with men’s sweaters; while Cliff is a fast-talking, profane, trans-continental truck driver whose vehicle has broken down. Rose caught his eye at the local five and dime, and we first encounter them as they arrive at her apartment.
There are several extended and meaty monologues for both Schulke and Berberian, and they make the most of them. Both accomplished actors, they savor Mastrosimone’s lower-class poetry and capture our attention.
Shulke, as Rose, cuts at our hearts in her monologue about the murder of a sedge of cranes, a recurring theme within the play. Rose was a frequent visitor at the zoo and encountered a group of boys who threatened and then killed four of the last seven living cranes. Later comments in the play suggest that may not have been all that happened.
Cliff is more problematic. He originally arrives looking for a physical encounter, only to be confronted with Rose’s evident damage. His rambling, pot-fueled monologue describing his life as a truck driver is one of driving loneliness (pun intended). Berberian gives us a glimpse into Cliff’s solitude on the road and his need for connection. His quick jokes and profanity have been cultivated to hide his need for connection. But we never really understand why he stays, and further, when he leaves, why he would return.
In their solo moments, Berberian and Schulke fly. It’s in the moments between monologues that the play goes awry. Arguably, there is chemistry between the two characters, but not enough to justify the frustration that they put each other through. This has always felt to me to be the fault of the playwright.
Theatre critic Adam Langer described The Woolgatherer as “‘Vinegar and Baking Soda’ … Take two contrasting characters, stick them in a bowl, shake it up, and watch the emotional volcano.” Director Derrick Ivey has bought into this theory, using every available space and level within the cramped apartment. Actors climb on chairs, stand and jump on the bedstead, and chase each other around in a game of dysfunctional cat and mouse. He has judiciously trimmed the script, removing the intermission, and creating a tight 90 minutes. Other elements, however, such as the video of driving the highway, which has replaced the intermission, and of the ocean, at the end of the play, seem unnecessarily layered on a play rooted in lyrical realism.
Overall, The Woolgatherer is an excellent production of a problematic work and a promising beginning for Berberian and his company.
The Woolgatherer runs through October 16 at Shadowbox Studios in Durham. For more information click here.