Martha Mitchell Calling by Jodi Rothe and No Background Music by Normi Noël, directed by Virginia Ness Ray
In a Southern Minute
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
For the rest of the month of August a double bill of new plays is running in repertoire at Shakespeare & Co. The first is a full-length, two-act piece for two actors done in a single act lasting nearly 91 minutes with two interludes for scene and costume changes. The second is a mono-drama which is interminable but noted at about 29 minutes. A quick note to producers: always put your curtain-raiser on before the main event. It makes more sense than to do the reverse as is done here.
Normi Noël performs her own one-woman drama, No Background Music, and probably should not. Her work this season as director of Enchanted April shows her talents off to much better advantage than her awkward performance on stage in this new piece. Here she is stiff, often mis-reading her own lines. Her character, Penny Rock - a combat nurse in Vietnam, mentions that she often sang to the soldiers and that she could have had a career singing instead of nursing, but when she sings it is weak, off-pitch and unpleasant. Perhaps the allusion to Beethoven as her favorite composer says a lot; after all he was deaf and it seems she’s tone deaf.
The script (and I confess to not staying for the last half of this piece) seems strong and is filled with clear, clean pictures of dying, burned soldiers and the emotions of nurses dealing with the dead. While I cannot know for certain how this piece ends, the images brought forward in the first half would make it seem as though the ending must be dark as well. While this is difficult, how wrong to end the theatrical experience with this downer, when the ending of the longer play, while considering death as well, is at least up-beat and strong. This play should have opened the combo.
One hundred eighty degrees apart from Noël’s play is Jodi Rothe’s delectable Martha Mitchell Calling. I don’t believe an author can have better luck than to employ Annette Miller for a historic character realized on stage. This actress inhabits her roles. She is completely buried inside the skin, hair, voice, language and movements of her creation. For anyone who remembers the original Martha, she is alive again, conniving again, emotionally revealing herself in ways she couldn’t possibly have done to the public back in the 1970s. Like Martha Mitchell or not, politically sympathize or empathize or not, you are with her all the way, first in her pursuit of married John Mitchell, then in her pursuit of Richard Nixon and the White House for her husband, and finally her relentless quest to expose Nixon and protect her man, even against his own wishes.
Her man, Attorney General John N. Mitchell, is played by company newcomer John Windsor-Cunningham. His performance as the dead King Hamlet, Gravedigger and Player King in this company’s Hamlet was extraordinary, but as John Mitchell, he emerges as an actor who cannot be topped by a challenge. Instead of playing the real man, he plays a portrait of Martha’s husband, one that hangs in her room, wherever her room might be. He is her image of him and her memory of him. Therefore, when he speaks to her it is through the veil of memory, the coverlet of booze and desire, the shroud of embarassment and humiliation. He is her creation and she adores him. That, probably, is her undoing.
Her play, her life, takes a Southern Minute which she describes as forty-five seconds longer than a standard minute. Those are seconds well-spent. In them Mitchell reveals the back-stories of her life even as her front story proceeds without a pause. Miller takes on the ranting of this woman, not mad, but rather furious, who is ultimately confined to an institution to prevent her vengeful whistle-blowing going too much further. The woman she portrays is proud of her vision, proud of her love, proud of her eavesdropping, never less than proud of her moral stance in the matter of the Watergate break-in.
Her death scene, unfortunately inevitable, is equally enchanting. With her walker she nearly dances off her feet as she informs us of her right to die with her head held high and her sense of having always been on trial, too, just like her husband and her country. She is, in her own mind, the third corner of that triangle and she alone emerges triumphant and blameless and whole.
Cameron Anderson’s set, Govane Lohbauer’s costumes and the video work of Larry Horowitz help make transcendent the performances by Miller and Windsor-Cunningham. Had I known what I learned later, I would have done what the rest of my row did, and left the theater after Martha’s death. This is a great performance in a fine, new play. Don’t miss it.
◊ 08-14-06 ◊
Normi Noel as Penny Rock; photo: Kevin Sprague
John Windsor-Cunningham; photo: Kevin Sprague
Annette Miller as Martha Mitchell; photo: Kevin Sprague
Martha Mitchell Calling and No Background Music plays in repertory in the Founders' Theatre at Shakespeare and Co. throughout August. For complete schedule and prices consult their website at www.shakespeare.org. or call the box office at 413-637-3353.