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Dark side of the muse - ‘Misery’

October 18, 2017
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Dark side of the muse - ‘Misery’ (Photo courtesy of PTC/Magnus Stark)

PTC’s latest offering an intense, visceral whirlwind

BANGOR – They say that misery loves company. Well, for the next few weeks, one company – Penobscot Theatre Company – loves “Misery.”

And you will too.

PTC is presenting “Misery” – adapted from the Stephen King bestseller by William Goldman and directed by Bari Newport – at the Bangor Opera House through Nov. 5. Featuring just three actors, it is a brutal and bloody triumph, a deconstruction of the creative process and a treatise on the potential costs that come with fame. It is tense and compelling and darkly funny – an ideal theatrical treat for this Halloween season.

Paul Sheldon (James Konicek) is a best-selling romance novelist, the creator of the wildly successful character Misery Chastain. But when he suddenly wakes up to find himself battered and broken, confined to a creaky bed in an isolated cabin, his life takes a drastic turn.

He’s the guest of a woman named Annie Wilkes (A.J. Mooney). She’s the nurse who happened upon the scene after a storm-induced accident sent Paul’s car crashing to the bottom of a hill and deep into the woods. She pulled him from the wreckage and brought him back to her home to take care of him until the roads cleared.

Or so she says.

It turns out that Annie is also a fan of Paul’s work. A BIG fan. Self-professed “Number One Fan” big. But what Paul soon discovers is that Annie’s devotion comes with a price; while she might be taking care of him now, she makes it clear that she has her own ideas about how Paul’s rehabilitation should go. Annie’s dark obsessions become clearer and her behaviors become more erratic, leaving Paul to wonder just what her intentions are.

Annie’s demands and actions grow sterner. Paul finds himself walking a gossamer-thin and ever-shifting line in hopes of keeping himself safe from her roiling and unpredictable rage. But even though there are folks looking for him – folks like Buster (Ben Layman), the town sheriff – it becomes clear that like it or not, he’s on his own.

Every element of “Misery” – the performances, the direction, the production values, the script – is dynamite. It is utterly magnetic; even when instinct tells you to look away (and trust me, it will), your eyes cannot help but remain glued to the proceedings. There’s a bleak humor that occasionally bubbles up, eliciting nervous laughter as the tensions generated seek a point of release, even as the sense of danger becomes – and remains - very real.

Director Newport has done marvelous work in capturing that danger; every choice is evocative of creeping instability and a looming violent chaos. There’s a crackling, frenzied energy to the piece that is as effective when suppressed beneath the surface as it is when it is freely unleashed. Fight choreographer Angela Bonacasa does a great job in harnessing that energy in some big moments. All in all, one is left with the impression of spinning out of control; it takes a good deal of directorial command to create such a sensation. And to do so with a cast of just three is particularly impressive.

It helps when you have a trio like this one.

A.J. Mooney has offered up plenty of outstanding performances over the course of her time at Penobscot Theatre Company. She is a strong and versatile talent. And I’m not sure that I have ever seen better from her than I did here. This is an immensely challenging role on numerous fronts, yet an undaunted Mooney creates something truly exceptional. Not only does she capture the scattershot sadism and crossed-wire charm of Annie Wilkes through the dialogue, but also through one of the most transformative physical performances I’ve seen from her. All slumped shoulders and shuffled feet, it’s the movement that boosts Mooney’s work here from good to great. It’s an absolute tour de force.

Meanwhile, Konicek captivates as Paul Sheldon. He brings forth a necessary undercurrent of pain; every word, every gesture, every movement is underscored by a sense of the agonizing ebb and flow of his injuries. Despite being fully or partially immobilized for much of the show, Konicek still manages to imbue his performance with a sense of the kinetic; despite his relative lack of movement, there’s nothing static about what he’s doing. He uses a powerful, expressive voice and a meticulous economy of movement to fill the space. The role demands equal parts determination and desperation – and Konicek strikes that balance beautifully.

One might be tempted to relegate Layman to third wheel status here, but one would be wrong. His role is not a big one, but a very necessary one – one that needs to be built on a foundation of bedrock honesty. Layman has always had a knack for bringing forward a sense of the genuine; it’s a skill he puts to good use here. And as his additional role as assistant director would indicate, he’s got a real understanding of the story and of his part in it.

As for the production side of things – PTC just keeps raising the bar. There’s an exceedingly high degree of difficulty to the technical wizardry that the design team has pulled off here. We’ll start with the set designed by Tricia Hobbs, a creaky masterpiece of framing and sightline awareness and three-sided function all set atop a revolve that rotates the set from space to distinct space (and allows for some incredible blocking that you just need to see to believe). Lighting designer Scout Hough plays with shadows and levels to enhance the insular moodiness of the setting; she also creates absolutely striking stage pictures along the way. And sound designer Katie Guzzi has built something as sonically rich and immersive as anything we’ve seen from PTC in years – the complexity of the thing is almost awe-inspiring, with moments both subtle and overt worth celebrating. Kevin Koski comes through with another pitch-perfect costume design, while Ben Wetzel and Belinda Hobbs have done great work with props (including a couple of REALLY good ones that I won’t spoil).

Finally, the special effects work needs to be addressed. Eric Anderson designed the effects … and that’s really all I should tell you. Suffice it to say that they are elaborate and impressive and the term “blood cannon” has been tossed around a bit; it’s shocking and awesome to behold.

“Misery” is an across-the-board success, a show that is firing on all cylinders. Everything about it - from the outstanding performances to the exceptional design to the quality direction to the strong execution – is not just good but great. A terrifying triumph from Penobscot Theatre Company.

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