Christopher McDonnell, producer, director, and star of In A Nutshell, is to be commended for his ambition. For his production at this year’s Capital Fringe festival, he has chosen to present short plays by some of the great playwrights of the 20th Century, with an interlocking series of intermezzos meant to tie them all together thematically. That takes a certain level of gumption, especially for an artist still in college and honing his craft.
Unfortunately, I fear that McDonnell has assumed choosing works by great writers and stamping an original concept on top of them would be enough to justify a production or make it a worthwhile experience. It is not. There are enough mistakes and miscues in In A Nutshell, that I think McDonnell needs to go back to the drawing board and really think about why he wants to make theatre, who his productions are for, and whose voices he thinks should be allowed to be heard. In A Nutshell is poorly designed, poorly paced, and largely poorly acted (with one major exception), and needlessly, counter-productively, aggressive to its audience.
McDonnell has made the unwise decision to cast himself in the lead of several of the short plays, but he is not at the point in his craft where that is advisable, given his propensity for pacing in circles and flat line delivery. The first of the night’s scenes, David Ives’ Sure Thing, is famous in industry circles for its use in actor training, with a need for split-second tactic changes and fast cue pickups. Without a second-hand directorial eye, McDonnell’s tactics rarely change and the scene maintains one note, despite the worthwhile efforts of his co-star Elizabeth Dannenfelser.
In a Nutshell
Produced by Raising Abel Productions
Details and tickets
I found it odd that the male characters were routinely the emphatic figure, especially when McDonnell himself was on stage, to the point where the light was either designed or the show was blocked so as to leave the female performers literally in the dark. No designer credits, so again the responsibilities for the lack of craft is on McDonnell.
Other scenes are fatally flawed as well, largely due to flat staging and unrestrained acting. The highlighting of male over female performers continued in pieces starring the night’s other male lead, Patrick Grant. As both an audience member and theatre artist, I was incredibly frustrated by Grant’s performance, as the young man is given to an inordinate amount of upstaging his scene partners, to the point where he routinely turns away on his (female) scene partners when they are delivering lines. It is an aggressively selfish performance.
This is extremely unfortunate, especially since by far the most effective and skilled cast member in McDonnell’s production is Amelia Eggerton, a talented, engaging young actor who deserves so much better. In a cast full of peacocks, she’s the one consistently engaging with and giving to her scene partners. The success of the night’s best vignette, Mary Miller’s Ferris Wheel, rests largely on her detailed character work and comic timing. Eggerton is perhaps the most exciting young talent I’ve encountered at this year’s Fringe, and her efforts in Ferris Wheel and Jason Katim’s The Man Who Couldn’t Dance are largely the reason this is not a single star review.
In McDonnell’s original material, a Man (Brian Long) in the audience has a series of increasingly angry telephone conversations with an unseen (or heard) romantic partner as he whines about his feelings being hurt because they were late to the play. Oddly, in the play’s marketing material the concept is described as a couple attending a one-act festival. Again, the feelings and frustrations of the lone male have been given priority. (To be fair, It can be noted that the script pointedly avoids gendering the unseen partner, though the marketing image depicts a heterosexual couple in the audience.) This material climaxes with the Man on stage angrily asking the crowd who we are to judge him, given we’ve only heard one side of the conversation. Allow me to answer directly to McDonnell. We are your audience.
In his director’s notes, McDonnell asks his audience not to take the show seriously, and not to “try too hard to see anything”. Given how little regard McDonnell has shown to his craft, the team of artists he has assembled, or to the experience of his audience, I’d say: mission accomplished. Now that your first show is out of the way, I dare you to do better.
In A Nutshell – Featuring plays by David Ives, David Mamet, Mary Miller, Joseph Pintauro, Jason Katims and Christopher McDonnell. Directed by Christopher McDonnell. Presented by Raising Abel Productions . Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.