Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Meticulous production highlights the huge size of tiny, quiet moments (The Bunner Sisters)

Marty Mukhalian and Annette Toutonghi in The Bunner Sisters (Paul Lippert)

The Bunner Sisters
(in a co-production with Theatre Off Jackson)
Through October 5, 2014

Two sisters in turn of the 20th Century clothing move effortlessly around a tiny storefront/apartment sewing, crimping, serving customers, stopping for tea, in a meager, but comfortable life. They remind of the careful attention to detail, and small moments, that is exemplified in tv’s Downton Abbey. They, too, have little to say to each other, a way of behavior that is so foreign to our “say anything you feel to anyone” age.

These sisters are actors Marty Mukhalian and Annette Toutonghi, in the new adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Bunner Sisters, adapted by and directed by Julie Beckman for her new occasionally-producing theater company, Athena Theatre Project. The meticulous storefront/apartment was designed by Phillip Lienau and the actors look like they could have lived there for years.
The staging is also cleanly inventive, with specific areas for tea, sewing, shop service, sleeping, an “outside” walkway and a further upstage area that can be curtained off for projections. The projections (designed by Suzi Tucker) are an ingenious way to show the travelling that characters do, from a bustling turn of the century New York City, to a ferry boat ride, to the countryside of New Jersey. Combined with sound effects (by Andre Nelson and Evan Mosher) and choreographed movements, the effect is cinematic and entrancing.

The story is about these two sisters, contentedly living side by side, until their empathy for a lonely man turns into a bit of a love triangle, unravelling their serene relationship. Each finds herself attracted, though clearly only one of them could succeed in a romance. The story is a somber one, sketching a woman’s limited options when she tries to live within the rigid confines of gentility, and goes precipitously downhill in the second half.

But the acting is terrific, as is the direction. The ensemble, including some fun comic relief from Megan Ahiers as an energetic busy-body neighbor, Susanna Burney as several distinct people, Marianna de Fazio as the writer Edith Wharton and others, and Jim Gall in yeoman fashion as every male character in the story (!), all of them very well done, clearly feels like what they’re doing is good and important work.

Costumes by Ron Erickson are also beautifully rendered in period. Lighting by Emily Leong ranges from delicate indoor gaslight or candlelight, to a more robust outdoor look in the upstage areas.

The main over-thought aspect of the production is way too much narration from Edith Wharton. A little of her poetry, giving it a novel-esque feel, is appropriate, but there is just too much and it’s tune-out-able. Perhaps, if there will be changes made, either taking out the Edith Wharton character altogether or taking her down a lot, would be in the cards.

ATP’ll be happy to see you this weekend, if you go. While I’d like to recommend it to everyone, it may be more of a “women’s” play. Men who don’t care for the subtleties of this kind of play, or the unspoken looks and silences of that period, may just not like the experience of sitting through it. I was perfectly happy to be there. You might want to discuss it with your male companion beforehand to determine his interest.

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