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October 08, 2010

THEATER REVIEW: University of Nebraska-Lincoln's "Dylan"

By Robert Stewart

Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas In the 1953 film "The Wild One," a leather-clad motorcycle enthusiast played by Marlon Brando is asked, “What are you rebelling against?”

“What have you got?” is his reply.

When Gage Wallace takes the stage at the beginning of “Dylan” (playing the title role), in a leather jacket and fisherman’s sweater, he could be a nautical brother to Brando’s rebellious youth. What is he raging against? The dying of the light.

“Dylan,” directed by University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate student Aaron Sawyer, follows poet Dylan Thomas on his tours of the United States in the early 1950s as a literary celebrity: giving readings and reaping the carnal benefits of his renown, drunk on the attention and also drunk on copious amounts of alcohol.

Wallace gives Dylan a real charm throughout: an early scene between him and Jessie Tidball as Dylan's wife, Caitlin, gives a great sense of Dylan as an artist tragically infatuated with his muse to the detriment of all else - including his own well-being. A scene near the end of the first act between Dylan and his American manager Brinnin (Sam Hartley) in which Dylan adopts “Baa-Baa Black Sheep” as his personal anthem is also a standout. 

As the woman who never tried to change the man but just let him be himself and suffer for it, Tidball imbues Caitlin with a real sense of the loss and sacrifice she had to endure as the wife of the “prince of the apple towns." In an early scene in which she wears a ratty fur coat to a cold beach and later at a party Caitlin and Dylan are treating as a fundraiser, Tidball gives Caitlin a real complexity, riddled with emotion. 

Both Wallace and Tidball have the added actorly task of giving their characters the native lilt of their countries of origin, Wales and Ireland, respectively. The rendering of the accents was strong throughout, but there were some moments in the rush of first performance when the brogues overwhelmed the dialogue, making it difficult to understand.

The moment when exasperation gives way to acceptance of the situation is ably captured by Hartley as Brinnin, and in his many scenes with Dylan, he has ample opportunity to demonstrate this. Emily Martinez as "Meg" gives a somewhat guarded performance, which helps to point to her character’s ulterior motives and adds a sense of mystery and gravity to her portrayal.

Director Sawyer uses almost every inch of the Studio Theatre in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Temple Building, creating a space that stands in for Wales, America and several locations in both countries. Sawyer excels in creating lively stage pictures when actors are playing off of each other, but stark moments of monologues occasionally felt flat.

He drew very complete performances from every actor, including several (Gary Henderson, Catherine Dvorak, Patrick Zatloukal, Stephanie Bourgeois and Jake Denney) who played multiple roles. Perhaps Sawyer’s greatest strength as a director was his handling of all the technical elements involved in the production, throughout the many shifts in the play: shifts of geography, shifts of scenes, shifts of mood through lighting or sound or gesture. Everything moved fluidly and served the play as a whole. 

Production was one of the strongest elements of the show overall. The attention to detail and commitment to grand gestures, when needed, carried over into everything - from the costumes by Janice Stauffer to the lighting by Matthew Baye to projections by Max Holme to sound by Jeff O’Brien and the sets by Jacob Boyett

The set design especially stands out: a small pier/wharf has been erected on one end of the theatre, and the other features a multi-purpose set defined by a wall of bottles. When water falls from overhead onto the pier and the bottles shine in yellow light, liquid bookends are created, with the sounds of water and the cries of screaming gulls, the loneliness of living washed in whiskey bubbles to the surface, and the play has real power. 

The Studio Theatre is located on the first floor of the Temple Building at 12th and R streets. Tickets are $16, $14, $10 and are available at the Lied Center Ticket Office, 301 N. 12th St. or by calling 402-472-4747 or 800-432-3231, Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tickets are also available online at carsonschool.unl.edu.

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