It felt like quite some time since I had sat down to take in an intellectually intriguing piece of work when I went to see Upstart Productions’ interpretation of Richard Greenberg’s The Violet Hour. The lights dimmed and Gidger (played by Linus Craig) shouts “Paper! Miles and miles of paper!” setting the tone for this absurdist meditation on the role of the written word in the direction of time. Though it may sound like a cerebral piece that requires more concentration than we prefer devoting in our free time, Director Susan Sargeant’s greatest achievement laid in using every avenue to pull me in as an audience member through the intriguing set design to the electrifying performances. All the while, the play maintains a spare simplicity that highlights the details of every word spoken and every gesture made by individual actors.
The title refers to an uncertain moment of the day between dusk and sunset, a point at which John Pace Seavering (played by Marcus Stimac) is struggling to make the most important decision of his first book to publish. It is not so much his conflict between publishing a book by his friend or his lover that made the play compelling, but the surprising arrival of a machine that is heard but not seen. The machine ultimately produced the most interesting reading material, as it forecasted the characters’ future and forced them to consider what they would publish in a different light.
Upstart Productions has built its reputation on edgy works that grab our attention, from the aptly timed Topdog/Underdog premiering in the throes of the 2008 election to 2009’s unforgettable Talk Radio. The Violet Hour initially seems like an exception, with period costumes and flowery language that are a departure from Upstart’s modern bent. While the portrayal of the machine heightens the mystery in this play, I was most rapt with attention by Candy Williams’ performance as Jessie Brewster.
To me, Ms. Williams represents exactly what I find exciting about Upstart Productions, an actress who did not attend a conservatory nor has she made a big name for herself in any city’s theatre scene. She works as a seventh grade music teacher during the day, and managed to apply take her understanding of fundamental rhythms to the mannerisms and demeanor of Jessie Brewster, Seavering’s lover and a popular New York jazz singer. Performances like hers are an unusual blend of masterful energy and projection that come with a passionate interest in her putting her heart into what she does, and these performances are what keep me coming back to Upstart’s plays season after season.
Before The Violet Hour descends into dusk and Upstart’s third season comes to a close, do yourself a favor and head to the Design Districts Green Zone theatre for its closing week to see something genuinely unique and exciting in the Dallas Theatre scene.
THE VIOLET HOUR by RICHARD GREENBERG
Directed by Susan Sargeant
MARCH 30 – APRIL 23, 2011
AT THE GREEN ZONE
161 RIVEREDGE DR, DALLAS