Stories on Stage: Bless the Beasts
A Review by Lisa Bornstein
The earliest of art forms has been enjoying a resurgence in recent years, as audiences flock to radio, to theaters, to bars and coffee shops to indulge in a little storytelling.
Stories on Stage has amassed a devoted following with the simplest, but most fulfilling, of premises: top-notch actors reading stories by noted authors. Each evening is organized around a theme by director Anthony Powell, an artist with a keen ear for comic moments and a light, nuanced aesthetic.
The most recent production, “Bless the Beasts,” brought together five stories on the topic of animals, specifically pets. The evening featured three actors, with Anne Penner delivering an exquisite performance of three different stories, each time differentiating styles and characterizations.
She opened the evening with the very comical “Where I Live,” by Amy Ozols, a self-deprecating tale told by a neurotic New Yorker with far too many cats. She voices one side of a first date, laced with awkward pauses and eliciting laughter. When she asks the date, “Are you allergic?” the question is colored not with concern, but with accusation. It becomes increasingly ludicrous — and a little sad — to imagine this woman’s dating prospects, held hostage, as she is, by a feline army.
She returns with “My Touchstone and a Heart of Gold,” by Caroline Leavitt, which begins under similar circumstances, as another urban woman buys a turtle with her boyfriend, only to have the turtle become increasingly, obsessively, important to her. In Leavitt’s tale, though, a happy ending awaits, and Penner creates a discrete character who is less neurotic and tightly wound than the first.
Penner’s triumph comes with Beryl Markham’s “The Splendid Outcast,” spun by the actor into a riveting, adrenaline-laced tale of an Englishwoman returned from Africa to buy the most hated horse at an auction. It is the kind of story that young girls should hear, one with a female protagonist who is fierce, unflinching and focused. She is gleeful at the prospect of getting a bargain on this murderous horse, and her actions in the auction are tinged with lust and derring-do. When she says, plainly, “Horse training is not my hobby, it is my living,” it is a progenitor of the fierce female businesswomen of today.
Stories on Stage is given to bringing in at least one out-of-state actor for a performance. On this night, Shishir Kurup delivered “Sir Henry,” by Lydia Millet. The tale of a dog walker with a strict code of professionalism presents challenges with its lack of dialogue and a rolling lack of dynamism, and Kurup did not seem as well-prepared as his fellow actors, stumbling several times and delivering a quieter story with much subtler peaks and valleys.
Sam Gregory closed the evening with a classic, E.B. White’s 1948 story for The Atlantic, “The Death of a Pig.” Gregory, a local favorite, is marvelously dry and matter-of-fact, in classic New England style. He brings into sharp relief the surprising intensity and sorrow that surround an ailing pig who only existed to be butchered. He wryly identifies the sickness and eventual death as “The Collapse of the Performance of Raising a Pig,” and shows how the interruption in the order of things disrupts the author’s own confidence in his well-being (White having been quite a hypochondriac himself).
Three tales from the Center for Digital Storytelling serve as sorbets between the larger pieces. They are narrated by the authors in a combination of photos and artwork projected onto a movie screen. They are also best seen on a computer screen. In a performance of intimacy and immediacy, passive viewership and a video screen feel very retro indeed.