Anne Bogart, the inventive director of New York’s SITI Company, propels a modest plot of self-discovery to the outer reaches of stylized storytelling in “Intimations for Saxophone,” a never-produced expressionist play written by Sophie Treadwell, being unveiled in D.C. by Arena Stage and SITI.
Journalist and playwright Treadwell, best known for the 1928 expressionist play “Machinal,” was never able to find a producer for “Saxophone.” Bringing the project to life has been a 14-year crusade for dramaturg Michael Kinghorn, who worked with nine separate drafts penned throughout the 1930s that he unearthed in the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress and in the Treadwell archives in Arizona.
Arena Stage, which under a.d. Molly Smith has emphasized the presentation of lost American works (Zora Neale Hurston’s “Polk County,” Frank Loesser’s “Senor Discretion Himself”), approached SITI about the project. Bogart’s fluid staging technique, called the Viewpoints, was deemed well suited for Treadwell’s avant-garde approach.
Indeed, the result is a fusion of light, sound, music and movement that lavishes sophistication on this jazz era tale. It’s another bold project for Arena and a true feast for the senses.
To preview the technique, the play opens to a silent and dimly lit nightclub, where each character is introduced at tables that border the Fichandler’s box stage. The men and women coyly eye each other before the first two begin to dance. Not a word is spoken for the first seven minutes of the play. It reaches a climax two hours later in a memorable scene in which the play’s events are rewound in a blizzard of movement, stark lighting and off-kilter music that resembles a 78 rpm recording played backward to a crescendo.
The play offers generous attention to detail, especially the period costumes by James Schuette, Darron West’s sound montage and the graceful dances choreographed by SITI stalwart Barney O’Hanlon, who also performs. Neil Patel’s set fully utilizes the Fichandler’s multilevel staging capabilities, and Christopher Akerlind’s lighting captures the varied moods.
The play’s chief weakness, and it’s a considerable one, involves the tedious and humorless plot that drags on to a somewhat predictable conclusion. It features a young woman of means (Karron Graves) who discovers she is ill suited for the marriage of convenience to which she has just acquiesced. The insufferable mama’s boy she has wed (O’Hanlon) springs loose her independent streak, and so she ventures on a journey of self-discovery. During her travels, she is counseled by a proverbial wise man to stop pretending and be honest to herself.
Although advanced for its time, this woman’s saga is hardly compelling for today’s post-women’s lib auds. There are forgettable scenes such as one involving a silly knife-throwing entertainer, while the production at times crosses the fine line between elegance and pretentiousness.
The cast shares none of the blame for these shortcomings, however. The earnest ensemble includes members of the SITI troupe, all veterans of Bogart’s technique. They juggle numerous roles and scenes, presumably unconcerned that the stylish Graves is the only multidimensional character in the crew.
Bogart keeps the action in constant motion as the plot winds its way. Despite its flaws, “Saxophone’s” mesmerizing ingredients and refreshing improvisations are well worth a visit by serious theater devotees.