Posted by: strugglesome | May 6, 2011

The House Of The Rising Sun: Theatre Exile’s Saturn Returns

It doesn’t take an Einstein to know that time is relative. We feel time stretching and spinning around us instinctively, it’s written into our language, we talk of wasting time, spending time, making time, things that last forever, things that go by in the blink of an eye, we know that time is what we make of it. And though humanity has made a solid effort to confine time to hours and minutes and seconds and months and years, in reality our own experience reflects nothing so regular and orderly. So when we are young we think we have all the time in the world, but as we grow we realize that what we really have is empty hands as we watch time pass. Or at least, that is the experience of Gustin, the central character and subject of Noah Haidle’s Saturn Returns, currently being presented by Theatre Exile. As director Brenna Geffers and dramaturg David White helpfully inform us in the program note, “A Saturn Return is the time in one’s life when the planet Saturn returns to the same place in the cosmos it was when one was born. Astrologers describe this as a time of personal revolution”. Saturn returns to Gustin three times in his life, at the age of 28, 58, and 88, and with the passing of each Saturn we watch Gustin struggle against the past, fight with the future, and finally, gently, accept his present even as it slips by him, leaving him, and us, relieved, and regretful.

Staged in Christ Church’s beautifully renovated deep stage, Geffers’ well choreography production utilizes Daniel Boylen’s spare and simple set, done up in shades of white and grey like a ghost town and illuminated by Paul Moffitt’s sometimes oddly psychedelic lighting design. But Moffitt’s light-house light effect works and works well, temporarily blinding the audience (this is a good thing) each time it swings by and gracefully shining on a simple fall of snow, a beautifully minimalist sign of winter coming to the world of the play. And while Brian Strachan’s costume design is just okay, Matt Lorenz’ sound design and composition scores the piece with a ghostly chorus, echoing through the cavernous space and reverberating through the play with soft fervor.

As a radiologist, Gustin has the ability to see right through people, but as is so often the case, can’t see himself at all, and so lives a half-life in his home in Michigan, haunted like Scrooge by the ghosts of Gustins past and by the face of his wife as it lives on in his daughter and then, later, his nurse (All played by Amanda Schoonover). 88-year-old Gustin (Harry Philobosian) pleads with his caregiver Suzanne for companionship, 58-year-old Gustin (Joe Canuso) clings to his daughter Zephyr  like a parasitic vine, and 28-year-old Gustin (David Raphaely) trying to fix his broken wife, Loretta. And as we move forwards and backwards in time watching scenes from Gustin’s arrested existence we are shown the portrait of a man who simply cannot move on, cannot come to terms with the past, cannot imagine a future. So we ask ourselves, is it Loretta who haunts Gustin, making him unable to recharge his existence, or is it Gustin who haunts Loretta, searching out her face in every woman he meets, strangling his daughter and overloading his nurse with the desire to see Loretta in their eyes? The three men dance around Schoonover beautifully shifting characters, trying to comprehend Loretta’s fragility, Zephyr’s determination and Suzanne’s distance, trying to hold onto her, to make her stay still. But she wont, people don’t, really, after all, “do you think you can own your happiness?”

And while this may all sound like the maudlin plot of a Finnish film, the character of Gustin, especially in his later years, is well written, frank, dirty and funny enough to pull it off. For the most part. While at times Haidle’s writing is lyrical and lovely and cleanly crafted, it is clear that he hasn’t really established the rules of this play, and as a result the interactions between Gustins past and present become muddled, sometimes all the Gustin’s see each other, sometimes they don’t, sometimes the transitions are clear, sometimes they feel jerky and abrupt. And while Canuso and Philibosian’s versions of Gustin are clearly defined, Raphaely is stuck playing a strong jawed all American hero, not the sarcastic cuttingly funny man whose pain shines through his bad jokes and dry observations. One could argue that Gustin was a completely different person before the death of this wife, but frankly that would be giving the writing a bit too much credit. And it’s a shame, really, because Canuso, Philibosian and Raphaely are all delivering powerful and clear performances, but they sometimes seem like three completely different people.

Luckily, Geffer’s clever direction and elegant staging glides smoothly over many of the snags in the play itself and delivers a gently moving sweetly painful whole, deftly ignoring the flaws and searching out the heart.  And it’s clear that her actors have benefited from her even-handed treatment.  Philibosian especially shines in his scenes with Schoonover, sewing up her bloodied hand with the firmness of a doctor and the kindness of a grandfather, while Canuso has the comedic timing of a vaudville star, nailing the sarcastic exchanges with no apparent effort. So if we are both moved and confused by this piece of theater I suppose that’s all right. These astrological movements can really mess you up.

Theatre Exile’s production of Saturn Returns will be running from now until May 22nd. Tickets are available here. As Gustin suggests to Suzanne, “maybe I was a witness to your life”. Well, here’s your chance to be a witness to his.

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