DEATH IN VENICE IN FIRST PERSON
Rew David Greer
After receiving last year’s award for Best Period Piece, DEATH IN VENICE IN FIRST PERSON returns for an encore performance in the 2013 United Solo Festival. Like the other one hundred and twenty one solo performances participating in the annual festival, DEATH IN VENIC… played one night only in Theatre Row’s Studio Theatre. The intimate black box was perfectly suited for solo performances and served the engagement well.
Based on the novella by Thomas Mann, DEATH IN VENICE… follows a successful writer Gustav von Aschenbach on a journey in which his procrastination leads him to an impromptu trip to Venice and ultimately his death. The details of the journey unfold as writer/performer Rory Lance confides Aschenbach’s observations, descriptions, and deepest secrets to the audience. His journey starts plainly enough as the frustrated author explains he simply needed to take a walk. This walk slowly turns into an expedition leading him out of the safety and familiarity of Vienna and into the cholera plagued city of Venice. There he meets many unique characters who take his interest, none of which is more captivating than a beautiful youth named Tadzio. The young Adonis captures Aschenbach’s attention and eventually his heart as his observations of the youth slowly descends into obsession. Homoerotic accounts and fantasies lead us deeper into Aschenbach’s mind. Over the course of ninety minutes we witness a man who is willing to let the object of his desire (and the need to stay close to him) keep our protagonist from escaping the plague ravaged city even at the expense of his own life.
Writer/performer Rory Lance delivers an exceptionally engaging performance as Aschenbach, a successful but lonely writer holidaying in Venice. The play’s success hinges on the duality of the incredibly detailed inner monologue spoken aloud and the moments of silence in which Lance’s physicality drives the narrative. Lance’s energy carries the weighty text with Olympian strength. The ease in which Lance slinks back and forth between protagonist and supporting characters is both charming and endearing. If one cannot sympathize with Aschenbach, one certainly will with Lance. Every character is uniquely crafted, highlighting Lance’s versatility as a skilled character actor.
Director Robert Ellman guides Lance’s performance towards remarkable clarity. The blocking never distracts from the lengthy tale, but enhances our understanding of the setting. The simple shifting of a beach chair and undressing of a coat allows Lance and his audience to travel from Vienna to Venice, from gondola to barber chair, from dining hall to bedroom. It is with this simplicity that Ellman makes his mark as a director who illuminates his story’s characters and setting rather than implicating them.
While the minimalism worked for the United Solo Festival and makes DEATH IN VENICE… a mobile production, I am curious to know how a full scale production with more set pieces and props would allow Lance to expand his energetic performance. To mime eating fruit, reading newspapers and the like momentarily distracts me from my investment in the play. This is not due to Lance’s technique as it is solid, but it is a personal opinion and problem that I face when watching any theatre, save a mime shows. The play would also benefit from a much needed intermission as such a plethora of dialogue given to an audience in one sitting is a lot to digest.
Having worked with both director and performer in a High School theatre setting, which I must add is so often callously looked upon as disreputable, even when it is not – and I do go so far to say that The Player’s Circle Theatre at Edward R. Murrow High School is among if not the best theatre school in all of New York City – I must applaud both Ellman and Lance as artists. The wonderful education that they instilled within me and countless numbers of students over decades of work was exemplified last night by their most recent collaboration. The old adage, “Those who can’t do, teach…” is not only untrue, but insulting to those who can both instruct and achieve high level of theatre, as Ellman and Lance proved with their solid production of DEATH IN VENICE IN FIRST PERSON.