Wit at the Masquerade Theatre

This March 12th the Masquerade Theatre opened their second season with wit: both literally and figuratively. Consistent with their mission of “exploring the humanity behind the masque,” the company presented Margaret Edson’s1989 Pulitzer Prize winning drama Wit.

Director Megan Knowlton Balne described the play as “reflective of the time that we’re in.” The emotions in the show allow audience members to experience a catharsis during the pandemic.

Wit also mirrors Masquerade’s mission. The show opened as Vivian Bearing, PhD, (played by Toni Richards) revealed her stage four ovarian cancer diagnosis. “There’s no stage five,” she noted. Her physician, Dr. Kelekian (Rico Santiago) recommended an aggressive eight-month treatment regimen to combat the disease. As an aside, he added it would “be good for research.”    

As Dr. Bearing endured the regimen, she narrated her deteriorating condition. She contemplated her life in the process. A scholar of John Dunne’s Holy Sonnets, she became a fastidious professor: one respected for her erudition but not liked. Confronted by her own mortality and plagued by suffering, she rethought the choices she made.

Edson crafted a spectacular character in Vivian Bearing. Combining the traits of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych and a mythological character punished through poetic justice, Dr. Bearing became a topic of research by the inhumane Dr. Posner (Jason Amira). Ironically one of her former students, he viewed her the same way she studied Dunn’s work.

A character this complex required a talented performer to interpret it for the virtual stage. Toni Richards enacted both Dr. Bearing’s austere persona and the vulnerable personality beneath the callous exterior. With some wit of her own, Richards delivered the powerful line, “Eight-month cancer treatment is highly educational. I’m learning to suffer.”

Richards showed Dr. Bearing’s regret over her life choices. During one of her monologs, she criticized Dr. Posner’s preference for “research over humanity.” She lamented that he didn’t take an interest in her as a person. It made her regret not treating her students with more humanity.

Throughout the show, Richards convincingly portrayed the character on various occasions during her life. She illustrated Dr. Bearing’s stern pretention while reciting one of Dunn’s poems to her class. In one scene, Richards credibly played the character as a five-year old child. Later, the performer showed Dr. Bearing’s vulnerability and need for companionship. During an early morning discussion with Nurse Monahan (Allison Korn), the two ate popsicles together.   

Performer Jonathan Amira described Dr. Posner as “a bad character who thinks he’s the good one.” Amira used his first foray into an “unsavory” role by playing Dr. Posner as Dr. Bearing’s doppelganger. His effusive gushing when describing cancer as “awesome” became the one time his character expressed happiness during the show. Amira showed the character’s personality through the laconic way he diagnosed: “That’s it. Kidney’s gone.” He further showed this coldness when denigrating a medical school class on “bedside manner” as a “waste of time.” It took time away from “research.”

Allison Korn’s interpretation of the empathetic nurse Susie Monahan contrasted well with Amira’s callousness. Korn showed compassion when speaking to Richards. Several times addressing Dr. Bearing as “sweetheart.” The performer demonstrated contempt for Dr. Posner through non-verbal expressions of disgust. Korn’s best came when Amira referred to Dr. Bearing’s concurrent fever and chills as “shake and bake.”

 Phyllis Josephson contributed her superb histrionic skills to the production as Dr. Bearing’s mentor, E. M. Ashford. The character possessed the same scholarly interest in Dunn, but with a gregarious disposition. Josephson demonstrated the latter when visiting her former student in the hospital. In a touching scene, she read Dr. Bearing’s favorite childhood book to her. The tenderness in her voice made it heartbreaking to watch.

Veteran Masquerade Theatre performers Beatrice Alonna, Courtney Bundens and Jake Hufner played in the ensemble. They worked well together as students in Dr. Bearing’s class. Hufner took notes with febrile intensity Alonna made funny faces and Bundens struggled, often without success, to remain awake.

The Balne creative team expanded upon the groundbreaking work they did in December’s Great Expectations. Stage Manager/Tech Director Tommy Balne once again took his technical prowess online. Using broadcasting software, he controlled where the performers appeared on screen. This allowed the director and actors to coordinate movements and positions so it appeared the characters either spoke to or interacted with one another.

All the actors performed live from their homes off book. As Phyllis Josephson commented after the performance, “It felt like a live show.”

In a classroom scene, Josephson criticized the punctuation used in Richards’ version of Dunn’s sonnets. One could put an exclamation point after this version of Wit. The Masquerade Theatre captured the tragedy of the human condition coupled with the painful search for truth while demonstrating “the humanity behind the masque.” The company still provided their audience with an entertaining evening of theatre. They did so through wonderful direction, engaging performances and, yes, with wit.

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