The Duck Variations - David Mamet
First of all, one thing must be understood: I was, in the most literal sense, the entire audience for Thursday's performance at Hyde Park Theatre. The boy elected to stay home and play video games, so I wandered alone into the entrance of HPT to find no one at the ticket counter and no one in the lobby. A bit worrying. I went back outside, confirmed with a phone call and a little google-fu on the boy's part that there was indeed a performance scheduled. Back inside, then, where finally the director, Jake Coe, offered to let me pay a fraction of the ticket price as I was the only one there. At this point, a girl can't leave, right?
Jake and I both expressed a little incredulity at the inability of a Mamet show to pull in a good Austin crowd. I think we both figured out the absolute necessity of the right sort of publicity. So it didn't happen this time; I was here to see a show, goshdarnit.
The director and actors (at least I think they agreed) very gamely insisted that the show was to go on, so I waited while Jake started the pre-show jazz, wandered in, and took one of the coveted corner seats. The set, designed by Jake, was simple and dead on. The floor was littered with autumn leaves, and a well-used parkbench sat front and center. Simplicity is all you need for this show, and I was happy that there wasn't anything more.
I told Jake I felt a bit like Queen Elizabeth, waiting for the actors to come and perform for Us alone. The lights dimmed and two actors, Richard C. Dodwell and Dave Mikol, ambled onto the stage, carrying all of the appropriate accoutrements for old men on a bench (props were well-used and right, too). Duncan Coe, as the "Park Patron," follows shortly thereafter.
The Duck Variations consists of just that: two men in fourteen different scenes, all to do with ducks in some way. The themes follow along the lines of friendship, the wild freedom of life, and inevitable death, "so that others may live." Dodwell and Mikol do a reasonably good job of playing the roles - I was relieved initially that they were played by two men who can look the part.
There were times, particularly at the beginning of the show, when it didn't seem as though the actors were listening to each other, but as they and I warmed up to each other, they opened up a bit more. The pacing could have been picked up, too, but this was Jake's debut as a director, so that can be somewhat forgiven.
The addition of David Coe (presumably Jake's brother?) was nice, but completely unnecessary. He, as a nameless park patron, would stand, walk to the middle of the stage, and introduce the next scene's name. Since some of the titles are merely sentence fragments, the introductions were a bit awkward, and the same effect could have been had using a lighting effect or some simple repetitive gesture on the part of the actors. That said, I was impressed by how little Coe pulled focus, especially since he was on stage for the duration.
Mikol and Dodwell managed to find a good deal of dimension in their characterizations. At times their blocking (though there was a minimum of it) seemed a bit forced, but they worked around it. As the guy who's always "read it somewhere" ("it" invariably being facts bordering on the absurd), Mikol carried the perfect degree of pathos. Dodwell, as the more uptown character, is frustrated and impatient with his friend, though he nevertheless prefers to be a part of the world in the park. Being originally from London, he and Coe made a good choice to keep the accent. In later Mamet shows, this probably wouldn't work, but here it provided a nice further contrast between the characters. I wouldn't mind musing on a park bench with either one.
All of this is said in light of the idea that I was the lonely Queen Elizabeth in the crowd. The show would be inevitably different in front of a full house, but for the five of us present, it was a small precious gift. We were all on the same side, and although there is no possible way for a single person clapping to not sound sarcastic, the actors gamely walked back on stage for a curtain call that consisted mostly of hugs and mutual compliments. What could have easily been an embarrassing situation was turned, through respect for the point of theatre, into a kind of magic.
This is the kind of small good theatre that I appreciate most, and the production values were clean and simple, right down to the costumes. The show runs through Dec. 18th, and is well worth the ticket price.
For information, visit Hyde Park Theatre's site or see the Austin Chronicle, for details.