Paul Sills’ Story Theatre was conceived and first performed in Chicago, 1968. In an interview, Sills (a founding director of Second City) recalled:
“It was an answer to the question of how the theatre could be relevant in 1968. We opened the Story Theatre in Chicago in July, and the democratic convention nominated Humphrey in August of that extraordinary year, when in the spring, first Martin Luther King, then Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Initially we were talking about opening a bar where we could put the Democratic party on trial for getting us into Vietnam in the first place, but that was just a desperate idea. Then I happened to read the Blue Light story in the Grimm Brothers collection and I saw it on stage in the space then and there without the need to change a word.”
That perspective is kind of mind-bending, as I sort out my reactions to MVCC’s production of Sills’ piece; if the creative team had a political imperative (how timely!) it wasn’t evident at last night’s performance. That’s not to say the presentation wasn’t enjoyable on its own terms – the troupe displayed a variety of performance craft, much of it impressive and well-coordinated. I expected morals (or at least modern twists) in the re-tellings of Grimm and Aesop stories, but the individual parts seemed designed to subvert anticipation; most ended abruptly, without punctuation.
As the audience entered, instrumental versions of old television theme songs played. We know those songs well, and the suggestion seemed to be that sitcoms are the modern equivalent of old fables and stories. Or maybe vice versa (I couldn’t decide.) The set was promising – a square, slightly raised acting area, surrounded by chairs. Behind the chairs on three sides were undisguised pipes, bases, and stage lights, aimed into the square. The overhead lights were also unmasked.
Robert Piperata’s lighting didn’t make the most of the setup, although he was able to paint interesting pictures throughout the show (they left me wanting more). Part of the problem was the blocking wasn’t limited to the center acting area, a constraint all but promised by the set design. Instead, lines were delivered all over the stage, from the edges of the wings, the exit stairs at the extreme sides, even from the pit. The action in the pit, raised to audience level, was always covered by a full-width amber wash; while Piperata’s use of color on the backdrop was good, he didn’t use enough in the acting areas. Also, several of those weren’t lit at all – after the effort to create a central performance area, director Paul Cruskie found too many opportunities not to use it.
The student company worked extremely well together. Too often in this kind of improvisation-heavy production, performers seem to be competing for laughs; that can devolve into a free-for-all, no fun for the audience. This troupe paid attention to one another, which allowed them to pull off some good sound effects, and kept the production hurtling along – the pacing was superb. Although a lot of the humor was aimed at a contemporary collegiate level (I don’t know if Sills’ original script was updated or if the new material belonged to the troupe), the jokes weren’t mean-spirited. I wished for a bit more volume – body mics would have helped, especially when Matt Wagner’s music cues overpowered the voices.
Paul Sills passed away in 2008, at 80. According to the NY Times obituary, “Mr. Sills taught an approach to theater that would later feed directly into the creation of Saturday Night Live and influence a range of artists including David Mamet and Richard Foreman.” I like the SNL reference – the similarity occurred to me during last night’s performance. For every bit that didn’t quite land, something else did, and a handful of those were excellent. I enjoyed the evening, and I think Sills would have approved.