Firehouse Animates “Something Intangible”
What piqued my interest most about Firehouse Theatre Project’s latest show of Bruce Graham’s Something Intangible is that this Edgerton award winning narrative presents a timely animation of the interplay between artistic idealism and economic reality. Even if Graham’s theme is a critique of the influence of commerce over the development of art, it inadvertently helps us see the necessity of keeping business sense in mind when sponsoring new artistic projects. Theater houses in town will surely relate to director Bill Patton’s animated take for this very reason.
Graham’s 2009 semi-biography of Walt and Roy Disney exposes the antagonism between art and economics as acted out through Tony and Dale Wiston’s struggle in the filming of something akin to Fantasia. What you won’t get in this piece is gum chewing sweet images of Disney princes for 2 hours, but a harrowing glimpse into their dysfunctional relationship.
Set in the backdrop of southern California in the 1940s on the brink of World War II, the celebrated narrative weaves the story of animated film maker Tony Wiston’s desire to rid himself of Petey Pup, his claim to fame cartoon that now haunts his artistic reputation. Struggling to recreate his image to impress the Jewish filmmakers whom he criticizes yet envies, his financiers including his brother Dale are reluctant to invest in Fantasia without a Petey Pup cameo.
Adrian Rieder as Tony Wiston has the masculine yet boyish good looks to beguile us with his paralinguistic eccentricities and temper tantrums, and while his hyperactivity can get frustrating sometimes throughout the show, Rieder nails the portrait of a maximalist, ingenious artist struggling with the reality that his artistic vision is subject to economic constraints. He gets the womanizing, amphetamine pill popping personality right on the spot, and sports costume designer Rebecca Cairns’ 1940s equestrian attire and pinstriped suits naturally to the audience’s advantage.
Further inflaming Tony’s distress, his brother Dale Wiston (portrayed by Billy Christopher Maupin), a self-effacing and physically ordinary accountant who dotes constantly on his mentally challenged son, wants nothing more than for Tony to acknowledge his nephew as well as to be recognized for his contribution to his brother’s film making enterprise. Interspersed throughout the storyline, we get a glimpse into Dale’s inner psychology during his therapy sessions with Dr. Sonia Feldman (Lauren Leinhaas-Cook makes an impressive Freudian acolyte). We learn that Dale, while financially supporting his brother’s work, harbors immense jealousy towards him. Maupin excels at inner anguish, and his recount of their coal-mining town upbringing drives the shows emotional element straight into the audience’s heart.
But while I found the individual performances unique, I kept wondering how this lionized plot would eventually sort itself out. The sibling rivalry that is the crux of Act I needs some work, but Act II is saved by Frank Creasy’s uproarious performance as the highly acclaimed German musical conductor Meyerhoff. Tony wants nothing else but to collaborate with Meyerhoff, who to Tony’s dismay won’t work without a Petey Pup reprisal. To my own embarrassment, I did not realize until after the show that Creasy played two roles – the film financier named Bartelli and Meyerhoff – and his camouflage speaks immensely of his theatrical dexterity.
The show’s ending will undoubtedly surprise audiences, not just for its skillful homage to Walt Disney’s Fantasia but for its unexpected twist of character development that will keep audiences talking long after the final bows. Amidst set designer Edwin Slipek, Jr’s intelligent 1940s film studio there is a lot for audiences to relish in: family problems, artistic frustration, and ultimately the right to reinvent oneself. Firehouse does it all tangibly.
“Something Intangible” runs through April 16, 2011 at Firehouse Theatre Project. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.firehousetheatre.org/
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
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