Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 15
 
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
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Music/Theater

(Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

VOYAGES OF HIS MIND: Captain Cat (Dan Kublick), retired seaman, hears voices of the living and dreams dreams of the dead, as a colorful array of humanity lives out a day in the life of a Welsh seaside village in Dylan Tomas' "Under Milk Wood," a poetic "play for voices," at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus through April 7. Matthews Theatre on University Place in Princeton through April 8.

Poetic Drama "Under Milk Wood" Brings Welsh Village to Life, in Intime Production of Dylan Thomas' Colorful Play for Voices

Donald Gilpin

Dylan Thomas, one of the great poets of the twentieth century, loved Welsh towns by the sea. His dramatic masterpiece, Under Milk Wood, a Play for Voices, manifests that love in every syllable and scene.

In a charming, well rehearsed production of Under Milk Wood currently playing at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus, Thomas' extraordinary poetic gift for sound and image, for language that bristles with energy and exuberance, helps to establish an exquisite blend of rich characterization and warm humor. The play is a feast of words and a poignant, vibrant, affecting glimpse of a day in the life of the town of Llareggub. "It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters'-and-rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow black, crowblack, fishing-boat bobbing sea."

Originally created just before the poet's untimely death in 1953 as a piece for staged reading, then as a BBC radio play (with Richard Burton in the principal narrative part as First Voice), then in a 1972 movie version with Burton, Peter O'Toole, and Elizabeth Taylor, Under Milk Wood is staged here with sensitivity and imagination under the direction of Princeton University seniors Susie Cramer-Greenbaum and Zach Berta.

A capable cast of six undergraduate actors — three male, three female — plus two female narrative voices play an array of more than thirty different characters, all residents of the town. The close quarters of the Murray Theater provide an ideal venue for revealing the idiosyncratic intimacies of this small town, and Mr. Berta's storybook set design — depicting the town in bold primary colors with miniature versions of the houses placed amidst the rolling Llareggub Hills and a glimpse of the rugged seaside on stage right — stages the action clearly and economically, while drawing the audience into the life of the town.

In the semblance of a radio broadcast with scripts on music stands, Frances Dayton as First Voice and Katie Benedict as Second Voice read the extensive narrative sections. But it is with less than energetic, rollicking, melodic, and articulate tones that they deliver Thomas' elaborate, deeply textured poetic descriptions of the town and its inhabitants. The play does not require Richard Burton's unforgettably resonant Welsh cadences, but it does call for a lyrical love of the poetic language with the sharpest diction and a flair for the dramatic — all of which were mostly lacking on opening night, despite Ms. Dayton and Ms. Benedict's thoughtful, intelligent presentations.

Music, under the direction of Alex Fiorentino and featuring Brian Gurewitz on oboe, Jacob Denz on cello, Madelaine Walsh on viola, and Mr. Fiorentino on keyboard, banjo, and accordion, is at its best in complementing the mood and spirit of the proceedings, evoking the lyrical tone of these characters' lives and dreams. The musical accompaniment is most effective when most simple, when, for example, a solo oboe resonates in the background, and less effective when it competes in volume and intensity with the rich, complex poetry that claims, and rewards, the audience's full attention.

Under Milk Wood will play on April 5-7, with shows on Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. at the Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. For tickets call (609) 258-1742 or order online at www.princeton.edu/utickets, or for further information visit www.theatreintime.org.

Realistic, varied, and interesting costumes by Jenn Ruskey and Shirley Ho further assist in delineating the vast array of quirky characters and creating their picturesque world.

The play begins at night, and the first section takes the audience into the characters' dreams before they wake up to begin the day. Richard Burton declared that "the entire thing is about religion, the idea of death and sex." The religious references are conspicuous, and the latter two themes are indeed a frequently recurring motif, if not obsession, in the minds of many of the characters in this town, which has "fallen head over bells in love."

Blind Captain Cat (Dan Kublick), as "he sails to see the dead through the voyages of his tears," is haunted by memories of Rosie Probert (Heather May), "the one love of his sealife." Promiscuous Polly Garter (Masha Shpolberg), who dreams of babies, romances the drunken Mr. Waldo (Steve Pearson) but sings of her lost love little Willy Wee: "But I always think as we tumble into bed/ Of little Willy Wee who is dead, dead, dead."

Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard (Laura Fletcher), obsessively tidy housekeeper — "Dust the china, feed the canary, sweep the drawing-room floor; and before you let the sun in, mind he wipes his shoes" — dreams of her late husbands, Mr. Ogmore and Mr. Pritchard, whom she tyrannized and could barely tolerate.

Gossamer Beynon (Ms. Fletcher) in her fantasies imagines Sinbad Sailor's "goatbeard tickle her in the middle of the world," while Mr. Pugh (Mr. Pearson) assiduously and surreptitiously reads The Lives of the Great Poisoners and looks forward to using his acquired knowledge to concoct "a fricassee of deadly nightshade" to poison Mrs. Pugh.

Meanwhile Mfanwy Price (Ms. May) and Mr. Mog Edwards (Mr. Pearson) declare their undying, unconsummated love in an exchange of love letters that get steamed opened and read by Willy Nilly the Postman (Michael McMillan) en route to their destinations.

There are occasional lapses in diction and some inconsistency in convincing characterization here, but the ensemble is impressively adept in accomplishing its frequent role changes across the vast spectrum of eccentric characters and in keeping the pace brisk and the audience engaged.

Especially memorable is Mr. Kublick's Captain Cat, peering out wide-eyed from his rocking chair, ear trumpet in hand, with wild, weird and wonderful poetic lines bursting forth from his lips. It is Mr. Kublick who most vividly creates his character and communicates the magic of Dylan Thomas' musical, densely textured poetry.

In planning Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas described "a piece, a play, an impression for voices, an entertainment out of the darkness, of the town I live in," and his goal "to write it simply and warmly and comically with lots of movement and varieties of moods, so that, at many levels, you come to know the town as an inhabitant of it." Theatre Intime's colorful production, with spirit and flair, brings to life that plan and the voices, sights, sounds and dreams of that seaside town.

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