Here's a quarter

Generic Theater celebrates 25 years
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  March 28, 2007
WHAT NEXT?: Generic Theater revisits the past.

Twenty-five years ago, residents of a shared Portsmouth house called “Middle Earth” rigged up some tin-can lights and a home-made light board, and the lights went up on Generic Theater. Taking a name that heralded their commitment to low ticket prices, non-equity local actors, and a broad range of aesthetic tastes, these bo-ho founders created a grassroots theatrical institution. A quarter-century later, many of those same thespians — and many new ones — are celebrating the birthday of Generic Theater. For the event, they are staging six diverting one-acts — billed as “three realistic ones and three that are more crazy” — that the theater presented way back when.

When the house opens, the intimate stage of the Players’ Ring is already laden with a variety of lamps. Warm and inviting, they are the operative set pieces of “Lamps,” a one-woman piece by Jane Martin. Helen Brock directs Susan Turner in the monologue of Lila, an aging but vibrant widow who has become, as she says, ever more drawn to light. She’s rented a studio loft, riddled it with mismatched lamps, and spends many a luxurious hour weaving among them, changing the patterns of shadow and warm light. In delivering Lila’s sensuous nostalgia, Turner has a great warmth herself.

Things are a lot more prickly between May and Al in “Adjusting,” by Jeffery Sweet. Directed by Richard DiMario, Turner and Cary Wendell play old friends, who are navigating the aftermath of May’s divorce from a third common friend. The classic friend-loyalty dilemma leads into May’s increasingly frenzied tirade about how well she, and not her ex, has “adjusted.” Wendell’s befuddled Al deals dutifully with the irrationality as Turner’s May pulls her voice into the shriller octaves.

Shrill, sweet, and raucous alike, voices are weft and warp of “This is the Rill Speaking,” Lanford Wilson’s beautiful portrait of the small-town provincial South. Members of Peggi McCarthy’s ensemble cast move in and out of various archetypal roles: Deirdre Randall is pitch-perfect as the town gossip, Betsy Kimball has a disapproving drawl as Mother, and Brad Ritchie and Roland Goodbody make scrambling fun out of two young boys thinking up whistle codes and jerking off down by the river. There are some gorgeous strains of both writing and delivery in this piece — Kate Kosteva’s young Martha names off the colors of her future house with honeyed, empty distraction; Chuck Galle’s crotchety farmer opines about how to cut a sweeter hay and make the cows milk more. Over time, the phrases refrain, circling ever back, and conjuring both the richness and the narrow insularity of small-town life.

Refrains also abound in David Ives’s “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread,” but these ones are subjected to energetic post-modern deconstruction. After a scene is sketched — the composer asks the baker for bread, while two women spot him — the minimal language of the exchanges gets a thoroughly Glassian treatment of riffs and variations. Phrases repeat, break down, and regroup, and the four actors act out the changes physically as they toss and cajole the language. Director Helen Brock’s four actors give an athletic and impressively synchronized performance of the verbal acrobatics, which end by giving us a rather affecting homage to the subliminal.

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