Calder Hudson reviews the opening night of Joanna Alpern’s newest play Backbone, directed by Katherine Weight and produced by Neil Christy. Backbone runs from 2nd-4th October in the Barron Theatre. Find out more information about performance times and ticket sales here.
Backbone was an ambitious enterprise undertaken by seasoned veterans of the St Andrews system, and it faced some serious obstacles from its very start.
Before assessing the opening performance, it’s worth considering both the distinct advantages and disadvantages connected to the enterprise. From a managerial perspective, Backbone was postured formidably, written by Joanna Alpern and featuring Neil Christy as its producer and Katherine Weight as its director. All three of these fourth years are very experienced in their respective fields; as such, this project had a stunning degree of star-power and an undeniably equipped team from the very start.
The aforementioned Joanna Alpern is one of St Andrews’ resident playwrights and has been profoundly successful in presenting her work. Following Echo, Bitter Root, Rattle of Keys, and Wolf Whistle, Backbone is the fifth of Alpern’s plays to be performed in St Andrews; this repertoire brings her average up to over one production per year – and we’ve only just started this one! As she has done in the past, Alpern took a step back during the process of converting her latest work from script to stage and entrusted the completed to her chosen director-producer duo.
Some serious dangers threatened Backbone’s development, however – particularly in terms of how little time the show had to prepare for its opening night. Backbone, a weighty two-hour play with a cast of sixteen, had only two weeks to rehearse. That’s less than one day per actor, a ratio that becomes all the more staggering when considering techies, line-learning, get-in, and all the other necessary bits and pieces in the play procedure. Locating sixteen people bold enough to join onto this expedited expedition is an impressive feat, though perhaps the idea of a show which would, good or ill, be finished in two weeks – rather than one which would languish over the semester and conclude around exam-time – proved appetizing to the show’s ensemble and techs.
So it was with a well-augmented team that the production crew set out against a substantial hurdle, the results of which were shown on opening night. All things considered, the show was a marked success, though not without a fair few fumbles over its substantial duration.
The cast as a whole was commendable. From a utilitarian perspective, Alpern did well to divide the script between sixteen different people, who played more than sixteen characters; with the lines divided into so many servings, forgetfulness remained at a fortunate minimum. In terms of acting, particular congratulations should be extended to AJ Brennan, one of the play’s emotional keystones. Smaller roles with large presences included Jared Liebmiller as Ian and Sarah Pollock as both Louisa and Elsie (humorous and eccentric opposites). To the show’s further credit, no one in the cast truly lagged behind in terms of training or ability, but several of the recurring onstage duos did exhibit strangely imbalanced chemistry. As many of the play’s team-scenes were recurring – such as those between Alexander Gillespie and Andrew Chalmers, as well between Suzanna Swanson-Johnston and Jared Liebmiller – the actors did not seem to cooperate or work off of one another as well as desired. As a result, some of these scenes felt more like a series of memorized cues rather than organic human conversations. This was not an all-encompassing flaw, however, as the interactions between Laura Ferguson (Ethel) and Annabella Fraser (Agnes) may well have been the play’s brightest asset. In terms of the comedic style and emotional potency the play was aiming for, this dynamic duo, and the script for their shared scene, hit the nail on the head.
While no particular actor lagged behind his or her companions, the same cannot be said of the play’s technical elements. The sets, costumes, makeup, and lights were all elegant (with the set being appropriately changeable and minimalist, as befits a black box), but the lights cues slipped up several times at important moments. This is particularly frustrating not only because of how easy it is to commit such a mistake, but also how easy it is to avoid said mistake with good practice. I suspect this aspect of the performance in particular is what suffered the most from the claustrophobic two week window granted for preparation – the lights crew simply could have used another couple of practices to seal down their prompts. With that said, Backbone’s makeup team did admirably, especially in terms of aging up certain performers, a process which can easily go awry if mishandled.
While it is (in my mind at least) a great sin to discuss the script of a play rather than its enactment, I feel it must be done, given the circumstances. This play is, according to some, an “issue play”; it was written in consideration of a cause, in this case the charity organization Marrow St Andrews and to a greater extent Anthony Nolan, the organization to which Marrow St Andrews owes its fealty. Indeed, Backbone is centered around an amalgamation of individuals, all of whom not only overlap Love Actually style, but also have all been impacted by blood cancer. The term “issue play” may, in some, conjure up feelings of skepticism or a suspicion that the play has a singular and specific purpose that compromises its artistic value. These feelings do not merit a response, perhaps other than to note that an issue play is vastly preferable to a play without issues.
With that said, I do suspect that had Alpern pulled this script off of a shelf rather than (impressively) writing it herself, she might have made some cuts before shipping it off to a director. Nothing in the play was particularly wrong, but some scenes did feel out of place or at the very least out of the loop. Of the play’s three key ending scenes one felt particularly odd, as it involved two characters who had never met prior sequentially delivering their own verdicts on its outcome. Some of the play’s intertwining strands felt less connected than others – one scene starring two characters in charity-emblazoned shirts felt entirely disconnected from the rest of the play; though well-acted, it was somewhat superfluous in the grand scheme of things. Additionally, some of the play’s duets could have perhaps been whittled into briefer soliloquies to cut down on time – after all, many of the play’s best sequences, such as those starring Laura Ferguson and AJ Brennan, were monologues.
These criticisms, however, should be considered more as proposed ponderings and less as urgent grievances. The good about Backbone far outweighs the bad, so much so that they can hardly even be considered in contention. It was easy to forget that this production only had two weeks to temper, as Backbone has more going for it than some plays rehearsed for six times as long. For those interested in seeing what St Andrews theatre is capable of – in all its facets – as well as those who wish to see it as handled by its experts, this one is a necessity and a rare treat for this early in the season. If Backbone is to be taken as an omen, St Andrews has a very promising year of performances to look forward to.
Photo credit: Neil Christy