Take the stories of Sleeping Beauty or King Arthur, throw in vaguely upsetting sexual situations, half-baked philosophical ramblings, and dialogue ripped from a Thursday night sitcom, and what do you get? To those morbidly intrigued by such a potential thematic train wreck, I encourage you to seek out Three Fantasies, the production of Don Nigro’s rambling, poorly-constructed trio of medieval tales.
The show’s attractive production values and talented cast are sadly wasted on the bizarre, exasperating script. By the end, it was baffling as to why anyone would knowingly subject hardworking actors, crewmembers, and the unwitting public to such a work.
The production takes place in Montgomery College’s brand new Performing Arts Center on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, an attractive, spacious facility which is to be celebrated despite such an inauspicious opening. The clean, modern corridors branch off to a number of top-notch performance spaces, including Theater 2, which is inhabited by Three Fantasies. This theater is a beautiful black-box type space, with an exposed lighting grid and a stage that dead ends under the feet of those seated in the front row. The seats are backed by a semicircle of translucent panels that cradle the audience right up against the stage, creating an intimate theatrical experience. Concrete, steel, Plexiglas, and polished wood abound, with no extra attention having been devoted to excessive luxury. Rather than distracting the audience with opulence, the designers have created a deliberately understated theater space that funnels audience’s attention fully toward the action unfolding onstage. With a bit more quality control, the Performing Arts Center has the potential to build a reputation as a premier artistic venue in the region, like the nearby AFI Silver Spring Theatres.
That being said, Three Fantasies does not do justice to the shiny new space. The subject matter and production aspects are not the problem. The medieval vignettes could have succeeded had Nigro decided not to saddle them with strange, disjointed dialogue and plot elements borrowed from multiple eras and genres. He never makes up his mind whether he wants to create a folktale, period drama, or farcical sex comedy. The characters can be debating mortality and the nature of love one minute, and the next they are spouting lines to the effect of “Come sit on daddy’s lap”. Each of the three stories also drags on too long, none more so than the third – “Doctor Faustus”. At the show’s two hour mark, this final tale reaches what could have been a satisfying or at least reasonable resolution but then drags on for another thirty frustrating minutes. As a string of strange musical interludes marked the start of each additional, unnecessary scene, the audience slowly headed for the door, one by one.
One element that proves increasingly unsettling is the playwright’s obsession with the female form and the act of lovemaking. These are not new themes in theatre by any means, but during the writing process Nigro apparently saw the boundary of good taste and decided to sprint past it, laughing all the way. Whatever moral lessons or meditations on life each play strives to construct are ruined by the playwright’s constant need to throw sex into the faces of the audience. With each bodily reference or lusty exchange, the show goes from mildly amusing to annoying to downright creepy. The last straw is a scene late in the third act between a lecherous, drunk Doctor Faustus and a naïve teenage girl, which, suffice to say, left me quite disturbed.
The show has a few segments where the dialogue jibes with the medieval setting and garb of the characters, creating flashes of quality and consistency. These brief moments mostly occur during the second tale, “Fair Rosamund and Her Murderer”, in which Abby Wood and John Milosich showcase great chemistry as two lovers trapped in a labyrinth. While this section, too, suffers from Nigro’s perturbing sexual fixations, this element is at least weaved into a larger fabric of entertaining repartee and much needed character development. This scene buoys the rest of the show, keeping it afloat amid its many trials.
The visual design is the show’s other bright spot. The well-conceived outfits range from beautiful, intricate dresses to dirty, torn tunics, and the stage is outfitted with eerie shining trees, lush fabrics, and aged wooden furniture. With the addition of the effective lighting, the designers create a mystical, old-world ambience for each tale, drawing the audience out of their seats and into the fairytales unfolding before them.
The actors and designers do their wholehearted best to make this an enjoyable production, but the glaring issues of the script ruin the show. Nigro tries to do too many things at once, mixing elements that simply do not want to mix and wrecking any hope of consistent entertainment. With so many talented professionals involved, Three Fantasies could have been a much better show, had the script been given a much-needed touch-up before commencing production. Ultimately, a lemon with a new paint job is still a lemon.
By Don Nigro
Directed by Perry T. Schwartz
Produced by Arts Alive Theatre
Reviewed by Ben Demers