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Laughs – and something to chew on after from playwright of 'A Walk in the Woods'

Still, Blessing's new 'The Scottish Play' could use some tightening

Published October 2005

By Jim Trageser


The Scottish Play
Written by Lee Blessing
Directed by Melia Benussen

The La Jolla Playhouse
Shelia and Hughes Potiker Theatre
UCSD campus
Through October 23, 2005

Lee Blessing's newest play is a comedy about a tragedy set in a theater in the middle of nowhere. While the world premiere production at the La Jolla Playhouse is very funny (even if the script itself could use some tightening up), what makes "The Scottish Play" work at a level deeper than its numerous laughs are the many lessons about human frailty and redemption.

"The Scottish Play" is about the Scottish play – better known to non-actors as Shakespeare's "Macbeth." Widely considered cursed by actors and other theatrical types (who would seem to be nearly as superstitious as athletes), "Macbeth" is, by tradition, not referred to by name.

Blessing takes this tradition of curse and turns it into a romp as his "Scottish Play" follows the exploits of a Michigan theater group deciding to tackle the Scottish Play to complete Shakespeare's oeuvre. A power struggle ensues, the founding artistic director is replaced by his protégé, and the financial backer of the company hires a Hollywood hunk to play the title role and so ensure widespread publicity.

When the ousted artistic director casts his replacement's three ex-wives as the witches for "Macbeth," the plot and the dialogue both pick up steam. As the Hollywood hunk arrives and demands changes to Shakespeare's script in order to make his character more uplifting, both the story and the repartee hit their stride.

The three witches of MacbethThe three witches of Macbeth
Photos by Scott Humbert

If the ending is a bit sluggish, there is still enough growth among the main characters to bring a sense of satisfaction. And with a bit of tidying up, Blessing could tighten up that ending and make this play a staple of regional theater.

For this initial production, Jere Burns (familiar to TV fans from several starring roles) is near-perfect as Jack, the directorial protégé who seizes the reins of the regional theater for his own. Jack is on the wagon and in control of his life for the first time in recent memory – at least until his mentor, Billy (Peter Bartlett), casts his ex-wives as the witches.

John V. Vennema brings a Bob Newhartian everyman to the role of Alex, the theater's benefactor with a crush on Jack's youngest ex-wife. Rebecca Wisocky makes Zita, Jack's nuttiest ex, almost over the top yet still believably human. And Erik Heger brings an airhead surfer zeitgeist to the role of Path Sanderson, Hollywood hunk and Shakespearean revisionist.

Jere Burns and Rebecca WisockyJere Burns and Rebecca Wisocky

The play not only bogs down in the overproduced climax, but earlier on as Jack's assistant, Pewter Piper (Diana Ruppe), tries to keep everyone up to date on the fates of the missing cast members as the Macbeth curse sets in. There are some potentially hilarious segues in there, and Ruppe gives a game effort, but this is one area where Blessing could surely improve both the flow and laughs.

The set by Judy Gailen is simple in its lines, although very technically complex toward the end. Still, the feelings it evokes are rustic and rough hewn – and for a regional theater company in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, her design is spot-on.

But where this all works best are in the humans seeking personal and professional redemption – in Jack battling his alcoholism, Billy the loss of his position, Alex the erosion of Eden's affections. Blessing weaves their tales and growth into the story in such a low-key and organic manner that you don't realize how much each man has gained until the story is over.

It's those examples of imperfect improvement that give "The Scottish Play" its greatest value. Blessing and the Playhouse have created a play that not only provides a nice evening of laughs and diversion, but something a bit meatier to chew on while driving home after.

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