A new era for Balagula Theatre began Friday night with its production of Bernard and Bosie: An Unlikely Friendship, by Anthony Wynn.
Woven together from decades of correspondence between literary giant George Bernard Shaw and poet Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, friend and intimate of Oscar Wilde, the play exalts the lost art of letter writing and its ability to cultivate deep, lasting bonds. It also offers rare, poignant insights into the inner lives of two important literary figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Shaw and Douglas only met one time. And at the beginning of their correspondence, they had been adversaries dating back to the trial of Oscar Wilde, an enmity which was eventually replaced with loyalty and affection through their correspondence.
Rachel Rogers, who is Balagula’s new artistic director, directs the piece, which technically is a staged reading. In a staged reading, actors perform with scripts in hand and design elements like setting, costumes, and lighting are minimal, sometimes even non-existent. They are often a key part of the new play development process or otherwise allow theaters to explore material without investing in the expenses of a full production.
During her curtain speech, Rogers said that staged readings were a way to offer audiences something different while allowing the theater to explore conceptual ideas.
The literary nature of the play allows Rogers to sculpt a staged reading that not only transcends the usual limitations of the format but is artistically strengthened, even defined by it.
In Rogers’ iteration of the play, the actors’ scripts are cleverly concealed and reimagined as Shaw and Douglas’s physical letters and journals. Instead of seeing actors perform with a script in their hand at all times, which the audience must actively tune out, we see them reading or writing letters which function more as props than crutches for performers Mark Smith as Shaw and Ryan Case as Douglas.
Smith and Case may be reading their lines, on occasion anyhow -- it’s clear they’ve memorized most of them -- but there is nothing artificial about it as their characters appear to be going about their lives naturally, reading letters, journals and books in their homes.
Understated design elements evoke the time and place. Rogers’ cleverly situates the men at odds, each posed at a desk on opposite sides of the stage. As their relationship grows closer, they move to the center of the stage, close but never quite touching (until, well ... you’ll have to see). There is a satisfying visual rhythm to this blocking, with the men growing close and growing apart and growing close again over time.
The production’s simplicity appears to give Smith and Case a luxurious freedom to explore and invent with abandon: they are players playing. And it is raw, and tender, and funny, and contentious and in its best moments, sublime.
Even when they are positioned on opposite sides of the stage, with one reading a letter while the other is silent, they are interrelating. Notice their physical and emotional reactions to the other’s reading, and how these subtleties dictate the flow of emotion in subsequent scenes. The duo is not just reading letters, the letters themselves become long-form dialogue and translate to a dynamic volley of ideas and passions and doubts that provide engrossing insight into not only their particular friendship but deep friendship as a concept.
I appreciate how Wynn edited their letters to highlight the many facets of their relationship and was struck by the boldness of some of their communications which would seem rude -- and in some instances overly intimate -- to many 21st century ears. They fight passionately, call each other idiots, blast one another’s work, but they also lend each other money, offer prayers and medical advice, and give each other special nicknames.
A letter is such a simple thing. So is a staged reading. And yet in this show we see how transformative both can be. If you’re like me, you’ll leave the theater aching for pen and ink and stationary and someone to write great and awful things to.