Review: Parasite Drag at Shakespeare & Company
by Gail Burns and Roseann Cane
For the Berkshire-Capital region’s most comprehensive listing of theatre offerings visit GailSez.org
Ed.Note: Parasite Drag runs from June 20–September 2 at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre in Lenox, MA
Special Event: Parasite Drag Playwright Mark Roberts and Director Stephen Rothman will be on hand for a special Talk Back on Saturday, July 14 following the 3 PM matinee. It is free with the purchase of a ticket to the July 14th performance.
Roseann Cane: Gail, when you invited me to collaborate with you, my biggest concern was potential conflicts of interest. I realize now what is really difficult for me: reviewing a play that I just didn’t like. Having been on the receiving end myself, I’m more than uncomfortable.
But I have to say it: I was very disappointed in “Parasite Drag.”
Gail Burns: And I believe we may be in the minority disliking this show. Friends and colleagues have been truly moved by the piece and the standing ovation at the press opening was genuine and heartfelt. But for you and me, while we liked all of the actors, Mark Roberts script and Stephen Rothman’s direction rang false.
Roseann: I had high hopes for this production, and with good reason, I think. Shakespeare & Company has consistently presented some of the finest theater I’ve seen in the Berkshires…or anywhere, for that matter. Rothman is new to the company, but has a powerful resume with credits including his work as founder and artistic leader of the revitalized Pasadena Playhouse.
The four-member cast includes three mega-talented company members whose performances have never failed to delight me (and one member I’d never seen before; more about her later).
Gail: This is a play about two brothers – Gene (Josh Aaron McCabe) and Ronnie (Jason Asprey) – reunited after many years of estrangement by the terminal illness of their sister and only other sibling, Nadine. Their wives – Joellen (Elizabeth Aspenleider) and Susie (Kate Abbruzzese) – are very interesting and well-written characters, but the play is NOT about them. Remember that every time you find yourself becoming engaged in their stories – the play is NOT about the women. I didn’t realize this until the moment the play ended and I wanted to hit rewind and go back and see it all again with that knowledge, so I want to be sure our readers get this point immediately.
Roseann: Roberts achieved much success in television as the creator of Mike & Molly and as a writer on Two and a Half Men (neither of which I’ve seen, but I know both shows are very popular). In my research I also found a podcast interview with him http://mentalpod.com/mark-roberts-podcast in which he poignantly, and candidly, discusses his troubled family history; this tempered my fear that his sitcom chops would hamper the dark, gritty play that I imagined “Parasite Drag” to be.
But there’s the rub. While “Parasite Drag” has some very funny lines, I found the script contrived, overwrought, and somewhat derivative. Roberts seems to follow the conventions of a well-made play as I’d imagine an eager undergraduate would. His material screams to be edgy and shocking (indeed, Rothman cheerily warned the audience that we would hear many “F-bombs” that had caused some elderly ladies to walk out the previous night). Well, look. Theater audiences in 2012 have heard the F-word before, not just in the theater, but in their own homes on TV and film, for heaven’s sake.
Gail:There were a lot of gaps in the information Roberts chose to share about this dysfunctional family. I was really bothered that I didn’t know the birth order of the siblings, which really affects family dynamics.
I barely understood where the play was set geographically, other than that it was some flat Midwestern state where they have tornadoes. There is a storm a-brewing throughout the play, which is odd because it takes place over a long enough period of time that a real storm would have come and gone. But this, of course, is a Metaphoric Storm, complete with ridiculously strategically placed claps of thunder. That tired overworked theatrical device drove me NUTS, especially in the final scene.
Roseann: I wish the cast had been given stronger direction. At times I felt as if the four were each in a different play as they spoke in oddly different regionalisms. I really don’t understand why Asprey used that thick-and-sticky-as-molasses Southern drawl, since, his character, like his brother, is a Midwesterner. We’re told Asprey’s character lives in Kentucky, but his wife’s the native Kentuckian, not he. Aspenlieder’s elocution is downright plummy; it seemed at odds with her character.
Gail:While we found the script weak and contrived, we all enjoyed the actors very much. I was beyond excited to see McCabe in a non-comic role. Often I am unable to take actors seriously when they have made me laugh has hard as he has over the years, but from his first moments – which are actually comic ones, by the way – McCabe had me believing him and taking him seriously as the upright religious brother, Gene.
Roseann: I really enjoyed McCabe for much of the show, but his breakdown in Act II rang terribly false for me.
I long to see what might have been with Asprey’s Ronnie. While he delivered some very funny lines, that accent was just too distracting for me. And the lovely Elizabeth Aspenlieder struck me as too stagey and removed from Joellen.
Gail: But we both adored Abbruzzese’s very subtle and winning performance as Susie, the newcomer to these twisted family dynamics.
Roseann: Abbruzzese’s performance was a standout. Her Susie was simultaneously nuanced and outrageous without being over the top—she was real. I want to see more of this actress!
Gail: I just didn’t understand costume designer Esther Van Eek’s decision to dress her so slutty in her first scene. She is playing a very sweet, intelligent, down-to-earth woman, and while in real life such a gal is free to dress as slutty as she likes, this is the theatre and costume is one of the major visual cues to character.
The publicity for this play has used the word “dangerous” to describe it – I would not – and I was warned repeatedly that there would be a lot of foul language and a “shocking” sex scene.
Roseann: I found that scene at the end of Act I gratuitous.
Gail: To me the “shocking” visual of the cunnilingus was not necessary dramatically as it furthered neither character or plot, although the lines leading up to it certainly did. (There is a performance photo of this, which you can see HERE.) Simulated sex on stage is a powerful tool which should never be wasted for mere shock value. Here it is pretty much guaranteed to drive some paying customers out of the theatre at intermission – what playwright and/or director in their right minds wants to do that!?!
Roseann: We should speak briefly about the peculiar title of this play. Parasite or Parasitic Drag is a physics term used in aeronautics. Roberts defines it as “that which does not add to lift” in flight – in other words it is literally that which drags a plane or bird or whatever else is trying to leave the ground, down.
Gail: It is a very awkward metaphor only peripherally associated with the play. When I first saw the title and heard words like “dangerous” and “shocking” applied, I hoped we might be getting a really interesting piece about transvestite or transgender people, which would have intrigued me. Instead we have a play about a lower middle class white Baptist family with “troubles.” There is nothing “dangerous” about that!
Well, the next play we will see and review together is Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Now THERE’S a well-written tragedy about a dysfunctional family that has been shocking audiences for centuries!
Roseann Cane is an actress and director based in Columbia County. She also has many years’ experience as a writer and editor.
Gail Burns is a veteran critic of the Berkshire Theatre Scene in both the print medium and her own website, GailSez.org