Perhaps the philandering professor is a dramatic cliché. Perhaps a professor who is angst-ridden and self-absorbed is just as much a dramatic cliché. And perhaps, just perhaps, the professor as a character is just a dramatic cliché, period. Perhaps. On the other hand, when a play features a formerly philandering, angst-ridden and self-absorbed professor bringing home an exotic dancer who he spends the entire evening lecturing to on the life and works of Dostoevsky before asking of her the most decidedly non-sexual favor you can ask of anyone, you just might find freshness yet.
This is the set-up you are confronted with in Zoe Mavroudi’s The Stenographer, a world-premiere of Venus Theatre in Laurel, Maryland. Many playgoers will be new to this company, but it is far past the start-up phase. Deborah Randall brought this dream to life back in 2000, and since then has directed and produced most of the company’s productions herself, focusing mostly on plays by women playwrights. After renegading around the DC area for a few years, Randall finally opened up shop in her Venus Play Shack in 2005. A storefront on Laurel’s C Street, the space looks like it might have been a tailor shop or a dry cleaner’s before.
When entering the theater, patrons walk through a curtain that virtually leads them onto the set. In fact, with seating on both sides, half the audience has to walk across the set to get to their seats. The set, then, blends well with the audience.
Venus Theatre does their best to make small spaces and small budgets into virtues. A case full of books that play no part in the drama, a pile of books on the floor that do, and some authentic dust on some of the props, and you could actually be in the house of a lonely, used-up prof. In one far corner sits a desk and computer that are virtually decorative until the last, significant moments. Across from the desk is a small bar that gets much use throughout the play.
As the play begins, The Girl (Amy Rhodes) sits silently on the love seat on the opposite end of the stage, while The Professor (Frank Britton) rambles on about the murders that take place in Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” It is 3AM. The Professor is plenty drunk, with the intent to get far drunker. The Girl, in contrast, has not touched a drop, but seems equally intoxicated with a brooding thought that is only revealed slowly as the play unwinds. As he struggles through one intellectual monologue after another, the professor sits for only brief moments. He paces all around the set, stopping only to refresh his glass at the bar. He talks in circles, dancing around what is actually on his mind. The play seems doomed to this intellectual mire, until The Girl finally rises up and confronts him about his own life and why is he so obsessed with an author who lived in a strange land a century and a half ago. Life, we all know, never reads like a biography, no matter how much a professor can describe it. The Professor keeps drinking, showing a more pronounced limp, as he reveals that metaphorically, the sticks that his life is built on are, in fact, quite unsound.
The actors build the tension expertly. Britton staggers more pathetically as his character keeps drinking to cloud out the painful truths that won’t stop coming out. Rhodes’ language gets progressively more profane as she exposes her character’s raw emotions; she jumps on tables, kicks things and screams in The Professor’s face. Then, the emotion shifts yet again as the characters realize they are not the complete strangers they thought they were.
The Stenographer, with its cycles of storm and calm, and its unnerving unpredictability is a satisfying production for a theatre company that clearly knows what it wants to accomplish.