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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Actors overcome Devils in script, tech

Published: March 16, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.

Last weekend the Brandeis Ensemble Theater opened the Undergraduate Theater Collectives season with a production of David Lindsay-Abaires A Devil Inside in the Shapiro Theater. Although troubled by technical issues and an especially confusing climactic scene, the strength of the cast paved the way for an overall success.
The play begins with Mrs. Slater (Catherine Wagner 09) preparing for the twenty-first birthday of her apathetic son Gene (Michael Carnow 07). During the preparations, she informs him that his father, whom Gene was told died of heart failure, was actually brutally murdered. Mrs. Slater encourages Gene to avenge his fathers death. Gene thinks little of this and goes off to class on the subway, where he finally gets the courage up to talk to Caitlin (Erika Geller 09), a classmate of his who is 'aroused' by the lectures of their Russian literature professor, Carl (Aaron Arbiter 10). Carl has his own problems, having become obsessed with killing a dull man who owns a repair shop. This dull man, Brad (Josh Mervis 08), is trying to bring excitement to his life by writing a story about a devil he sees in his wallpaper. He is also renting a room to a mysterious artist named Lily (Sarah Jacobs 09). As the play progresses, Carl becomes paranoid that the dull man will kill him first. Caitlin then steals Carls notebooks and seduces/blackmails him into going through with plans to kill Brad first. Mrs. Slater shows Gene his fathers severed feet to convince him of the truth of her story while Lily starts vomiting blood. Caitlin and Carl paralyze Gene while botching an attempt to kill Brad, and the devil Brad sees in his wallpaper comes to life to fight with him. The play concludes with four characters are dead, a fifth dying, and Gene ironically rolling away on his wheelchair to seek his fathers killer;

the killer is in fact already dead.

The show ran into a number of problems from a technical standpoint. Sound cues were frequently soft, even barely audible;

sometimes it was hard to tell that a gun was being fired, if people were talking while shooting it. The lighting was functional on stage, but frequently cut out right at the end of a scene, denying the audience the chance to see characters reactions to key pieces of information and plot twists revealed as the scene ends, which may have helped make some of the many key plot revelations clearer. This sense of rushing crept into the acting at the end of some scenes too;

a momentary pause before Caitlin leaps into the path of the oncoming train (imitating the death of Anna Karenina), for instance, may have helped the audience take in the scene more and understand the significance of what was going on.

The script also, unfortunately, imploded structurally at a key moment. The set featured two rooms onstage, Brads repair shop and Mrs. Slaters laundromat. A love triangle starring Lily, Carl and Caitlin took place in Brad's shop, while Brad was hiding in the laundromat, accidentally implying that Brad had paralyzed Gene in his attempt to steal Carl's van. The frantic arrangement provided a hilarious moment when the action froze and Gene came onstage in pajamas and bunny slippers, recounting a dream he was having as it all happened. The action of the scene was jumbled, and it was impossible to follow the action of the plot happening simultaneously onstage.

The acting and strong delivery of the playwright's humor, however, ultimately overcame these issues to make the show an overall success. Wagner staked a claim to being one of the finest character actresses in Brandeiss undergraduate community with her portrayal of Mrs. Slater. She did an excellent job of selling herself as a middle-aged woman and obviously grasped the humorous mannerisms of a meddlesome, babying mother. Wagner was not just a stereotype;

her monologue about the trip she and Gene went on together to see his father, after which her husband was murdered, was genuinely touching. In another stellar performance, Arbiter was tremendously successful as Carl. Arbiter's odd pacing was a wonderful way to subtly manifest Carls insanity and he frequently appeared to be sweating profusely, an excellent physical embodiment of the intensity of his character. That intensity also carried over into his acting;

his incarnation of Gene was engaging throughout the show.

Jacobs turned in a good, solid naturalistic performance as Lily, one of the two primarily sane characters in the play. Mervis had an uncanny sense of comic delivery for Brad, finding the humor lurking anywhere he could. His performance brought a sense of reality to his characters 'other world,' although occasionally he seemed to slip into playing the qualities of his character, disengaging a little from the scene.

Geller brought great energy to her portrayal of Caitlin, navigating her emotional swings and her frequent flirtations very well. Carnow, as Gene, did not hold up as well as the rest of the cast;

he gave a solid naturalistic performance in act one and did a good job with the dream monologue that briefly interrupts the play's climax. When he was in the wheelchair, however, he seemed to fall into the trap of playing weakness or playing boyishness at the expense of his actual engagement in the scene.

The set worked well;

the laundromat and the repair shop were effective, while pieces brought on to simulate other settings successfully performed their functions. The costuming was also solid. All of the characters seemed to be dressed in ways that would befit their positions in the world at large.

The climactic scene certainly would benefit from a rewrite to make it clearer and tech problems were more prevalent than would be ideal, but overall the strength of the acting and Lindsay-Abaires humor carried the day for an entertaining production of A Devil Inside, getting the spring UTC season off to a strong start.