Friday, February 18, 2011

On the Waterfront : San Jose Stage Company : A Must-See!

It takes a singular type of bravery to produce a theatrical adaptation of a cinema milestone. Since its release in 1954, the iconic “contender” scene, as portrayed by the inimitable Marlon Brando, has permeated our culture and given the movie near epic status. Is anyone not familiar with that scene?

Unfortunately, its cultural ubiquity has become something of a mixed blessing. Deprived of its proper context, the original meaning has been diluted nearly to the point of caricature. That’s too bad, because Kazan and Schulberg’s profound tale of moral courage and redemption is a genuine masterpiece. Oh, and by the way, so is this production.

The brilliant staging elevates the minimalist set design and authentic costuming to a heightened reality reminiscent of a stylized film noir. The characters are in essence prisoners of their own fear, and each element of the production design is fashioned to emphasize that central theme. Credit must go to the visionary direction of Kenneth Kelleher, who doesn’t miss an opportunity to utilize the creative talent at his disposal.

From the imaginative, artistic lighting to the ingeniously versatile use of cage back chairs as props, the prison bar motif is omnipresent. And the sound design sets the perfect ambiance by featuring the disquieting blare of industrial air horns and the elegiac rhythms of the jazz saxophone.

I must say, unlike the characters, there’s no evidence the actors were intimidated whatsoever. As Terry Malloy, the beleaguered protagonist originally portrayed by Brando, Johnny Moreno wisely resists any temptation to resort to imitation. Instead, he makes the honest choice of bringing his own signature style to the role and thus succeeds admirably. In fact, his earnest interpretation captures Malloy’s intrinsic ambivalence in a manner that is more true to the naïveté of the character.

Summer Serrafin, the sole female cast member, initially strikes an appropriately dissonant chord of East Coast toughness. But when she lets her hair down in a touching acting duet with Moreno, she reveals in both gestures and nuanced vocal changes an appealing feminine vulnerability and youthful innocence. She’s quite good.

In contrast to her subtle performance, there’s Randall King, as mob kingpin Johnny Friendly, who roars onto stage projecting a masculine persona of powerful malignant intensity. His baritone delivery commands respect, and his craggy, reptilian face and lethal gaze elicit dread. One finds him utterly believable as a man who’s lived a life of violence and mayhem. It’s a stunning performance that eviscerates any memory of Lee J. Cobb!

Going toe-to-toe with Mr. King is John Flanagan, who as Charlie Malloy must traverse an emotional tightrope between his loyalty to both his brother and his generous, albeit malevolent, boss. He’s exceptional in that he’s confident and smart enough to eschew ostentation and skilled enough to bring an innate integrity and strength to the role.  Bravo!

The remainder of the supporting players are all excellent, most of whom play dual roles made noteworthy by their uniformly purposeful commitment and seamless transitions. Honorable mention must go to the hardworking Carl Holvick-Thomas, however, who tirelessly plays four discrete parts, each unrecognizable from the other. One has to pay really  close attention to discern it’s the same actor!

The only regrettable aspect of the evening was the half-full house. Such apathy is entirely unjustified considering the caliber of talent on display at this venue. I encourage everyone not to miss a chance to experience the vibrant immediacy of local theatre at its best!

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