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Monday, March 14, 2011

Word for Word Stays True to Greer's The Islanders but Can't Dodge Redundant Moments

Posted By on Mon, Mar 14, 2011 at 8:55 AM

Deila MacDougall and Nancy Shelby in The Islanders - MARK LEIALOHA
  • Mark Leialoha
  • Deila MacDougall and Nancy Shelby in The Islanders

Adapting a work of literature into a piece of theater word-for-word, literally, is an audacious and risky undertaking. Verbalizing the "he saids" and "she thoughts" of a story and the myriad adverbs and adjectives could turn a one-hour play into a two-hour exercise in superfluous linguistics. The folks at Word for Word, reciters and physical re-enactors of Andrew Sean Greer's The Islanders over the weekend, consider these hurdles a noble challenge rather than a tedious theatrical gimmick. We consider their effort a qualified success.

The work, directed by Shiela Balter, was presented to an enthusiastic and amused Z Space audience. (The troupe now ventures to France with the production, as it has done for 16 years.) However, the success of this particular production depends largely on one's views on dramaturgical orthodoxy and tolerance for slapstick humor. The crucial prerequisite is a willingness to suspend one's disbelief in an entirely different way than normal, to buy into a world where everyone is a narrator.

Paul Finocchiaro and Nancy Shelby - MARK LEIALOHA
  • Mark Leialoha
  • Paul Finocchiaro and Nancy Shelby

Clocking in at less than an hour, The Islanders is a short story of a long friendship. A handful of scenes illustrate the yin-yang relationship of lifelong mates Cat and Maddy: first as reunited pals and tourists traveling in Ireland, then as confiding college roommates in New York City in the '80s, and finally as old reliables when Maddy's husband is ill in the hospital. Word for Word charter member Nancy Shelby plays Maddy, whose romantic blunders leave her insecure and desperate for a source of strength in her life, and Stephanie Hunt's Cat will have to do. Cat is a college professor who still yearns for the excitement of her cosmopolitan past; Hunt plays the role as vaguely intellectual and accustomed "to being in charge of things."

The work bounces between each character's inner monologue and his or her verbal dialogue. Some of it's recited by the owner of the thought, other times by another actor. It eventually became clear that we were to be told about, rather than shown, the intricacies of their relationship. Greer's third-person omniscient narration is uneventful by design, though it does include the occasional humorous scene such as the pair's visit to a local historical museum, satirizing the American tourists as well as the exploitative traps along their way. The focus is instead on their playful observations of the region's antiquity and the awkward moments between parted companions. "The old friends aren't quite used to each other," Greer writes. "Jokes that fall flat. Cat's shifting tempers. Maddy's sudden silences."

Paul Finocchiaro, Delia MacDougall and Joel Mullenix round out the ensemble cast, personifying various elements and artifacts of the pastoral Irish landscape, and also playing a group of Irish criminals known locally as the Tinkers, who their guidebook says lure vulnerable tourists into dangerous situations. The ensemble was a hit with the crowd, especially when given punch lines to recite in unison.

Numerous details from the text were redundant, especially those pertaining to the characters' appearance ("Cat wears a black trenchcoat, thick black-framed glasses, and short blond hair.") or the physical setting. At times the disconnect between real life and literature seemed greater than it would have were the story read in silence, or had it been adapted for stage. These are the constraints Word for Word has chosen, but paradoxically, the attempt to challenge the idea that every artistic medium has its limitations sometimes made a case for one medium's sovereignty.

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Chris Trenchard

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