When even the program notes to A Tale of Mystery, the latest Williamstheatre production, declare that for most modern audiences, the word melodramatic has become synonymous with the word “bad,” it is difficult to walk into the show, which is subtitled A Melodrama and keep a straight face. However, this production of A Tale of Mystery, cannot be so easily lumped into the category of bad melodramas. Instead, the performance, which embraces the melodramatic genre earnestly, is fairly successful in creating an entertaining hour and a half of theater.
In staging A Tale of Mystery, the Theater Department spared no expense. In fact, the elaborate set, designed by visiting artist Miguel Romero, is one of the more notable features of the production. In true melodrama form, everything about A Tale of Mystery is exaggerated including the sets, the gestures of the actors and the complex and at times convoluted plot. Unfortunately, the mediocre quality of the text undercuts the grandeur of the production. Though it is inherent to the genre of melodrama that the emotional content of the play be unambiguous, the moral clear, and the dialogue simple, Tale was reminiscent of a formulaic Hollywood action film. In short, incredible production value but terrible story-line. A Tale of Mystery is the sort of show you enjoy watching, but after leaving the theater you feel guilty about that enjoyment.
The major weakness of A Tale of Mystery is its script, which is at best confusing. Such an involved plot would have been aided by compelling characters, but the playwright, Thomas Holcroft, failed to provide them. Instead, he relied heavily on bland, uninteresting character types.
A Tale of Mystery centers around a young girl named Selina, whose uncle Bonamo wants her to marry the son of the unbelievably evil Count Romaldi, though his own son, Stephano, is madly in love with her. The plot begins to twist when Francisco, a mute old man taking refuge in Bonamo’s house, reacts poorly to Romaldi. Selina overhears Romaldi scheming with his henchman Malvoglio about the murder Francisco. Throughout all this, Selina’s maid, Fiametta, provides a voice of reason to the short-tempered Bonamo. Insanely, all of this takes place in the first half of the first act. (If you were able to follow the action described just now, then you must be a true fan of melodramas and should be first in line tomorrow to buy a ticket for one of this weekend’s performances.)
Luckily, the cast does a remarkable job of bringing life to Holcroft’s text. Many of the roles in Tale are rather difficult, yet the actors rise to the challenge. Craig DiFolco ’99 performs admirably in the role of the mute Francisco. On stage, he holds his own entirely through exaggerated gestures. Michael Izquierdo ’00 and Sarah Thomas ’01 perform the incredible feat of creating a fairly compelling romance between Holcroft’s rather bland lovers. Jason Greenberg ‘01 provides Bonamo with a booming baritone, creating an old man who is both imposing and pitiable at the same time. As the nurse Fiametta, Rebecca Weidner ’01 injects a stock character with enough comedy to entertain yet not so much that it distracts.
This performance of A Tale of Mystery was the first time that I actually heard a Williams audience hiss when the bad guys appeared on stage. On that note, it is difficult to imagine a more baneful villain than Romaldi, who is played by Matthew Roessing ’01, or so I thought, until his even more evil henchman Malvoglio, played by Seth Resnick ’99, entered the scene.
The overt and expressive gestures of the cast, though sometimes eliciting laughter from the audience, are wonderfully powerful and far more exciting than the text. Director Jean-Bernard Bucky has an eye for stage pictures, and most of the scenes are blocked to emphasize an overall look, which, in this production, is unerringly beautiful. It is a pity that the dialogue does not do justice to the many talented performers who speak it.
The play is set in three different locations: the interior of a rather well-to-do family’s house, a garden decorated for a wedding ceremony, and the rocky crags of a nearby mountain. Each of the three sets fills the entire proscenium and is as ornate and as elegant as those of the Metropolitan Opera. The sets consist mainly of flats painted with intricate black and white streaks. They look as expensive as they probably are.
The costumes, most designed by Deborah Brothers, provide a nice contrast to the monochromatic set. They are pleasingly simple and brightly colored. Predictably following in the vein of melodrama, each outfit matches the role of the character who wears them. The villain wears black and red, and the ingenue wears white.
More color is provided by the lighting, which was designed by Sabrina Hamilton. Although it is sometimes difficult to see the actors’ faces, the lighting manages to sustain the audience’s focus where and when it is needed on a set that could easily distract. The highlight of the lighting design is a fantastic storm at the beginning of act three, which features a lightning streaked sky and ominous black on blue silhouettes. The play’s music, composed for the production by Greg Pliska’84, is quite effective in intensifying the overall tone without ever stealing too much focus from the visual realm.
However, the most enjoyable part of the production’s stage effects are the three eight foot tall puppets, created by John Finkbeiner ’00. Consisting of no more than masks, hands, and burlap, the puppets each have a distinctive character that is as evocative as any real character on stage. The grandly expressive movements and gestures of the puppets echoed the similarly expressive gestures of the cast and made it easier to suspend disbelief in a genre long disparaged by the modern American penchant for “realism”. Even the most cynical and ironic of theater-goers can warm to the melodrama when the giant puppets arrive.
Even with the less than shining script, the production manages to be successful because of polished acting, intricate set design, and fun visual effects. A Tale of Mystery is a satisfyingly diverting piece of entertainment. Its rejection of modern irony and realism is a refreshing change from most theatrical fare nowadays.