Steeped in Tarantino-esque violence, vulgarity and dark comedy, An Impromptu Performance opens promisingly enough; three dead bodies litter a small room as a brutal, scrappy melee sets the evening’s tone. A group of self-styled thieves have found themselves locked in a drug-dealer’s basement after a botched robbery attempt, and as the situation becomes more and more dire, tensions rise and stakes escalate, calling friendships into question and bringing simmering conflicts into stark focus. Though intriguing in concept, An Impromptu Performance suffers from a multitude of issues.
While an in medias res opening was an effective way of immediately pulling the audience in, it was somewhat confused by the choice to pre-set the actors in a slightly different position as audience filtered in. A majority of shows this semester have pre-set actors, and while this can work well, it can also feel like a gimmick when not wholly justified. Impromptu would have benefited from a more conventional opening.
Writer-director Beatriz Azevedo clearly made the choice to have her actors deliver lines very quickly, immediately establishing a snappy pace and contributing to the flow of the piece. This worked well to create an almost hyper-realist vibe for the play. However, while a quick pace worked for this production, Azevedo failed to find sufficient range in her actors’ timing, which meant by the halfway point of the show the speed of every single word became grating, and silence – an important tool for both actors and audience – became a luxury. Other directorial issues were apparent. Blocking tended to feel stagey and purposeless – when actors moved, it very rarely felt as if they made a choice as the character, and rather just moved to suit the demands of the script. Sight lines also suffered as a result of blocking. The floor of the Barron is notoriously hard to see with an audience, and many characters remained on the downstage floor for much of the first half, obscuring the action. Additionally, certain parts of the production felt under-directed and stagnant – moments that should have resonated lacked shifting dynamics or growing energy, and as a result fell flat. This was most apparent in the play’s overall problem transitioning between energy levels. Moments of high intensity never seem to cool into or grow out of the quieter bits; rather movement between these dynamics felt awkward and under-worked.
Performances varied in strength, but were overall my favorite aspect of the production. Oli Savage gave a convincing turn as Freddie Phelps, the group’s youngest member whose panic begins to set the others off. Savage brought a thoughtful characterization to Freddie, creating a character equal parts likeable and pathetic. Similarly, Louis Catliff – playing Darren, a hardened career criminal – brought a level of consideration and humor to a role that could easily have felt one-dimensional. However, across the board, the acting had issues. First and foremost, energy was incredibly low. Physically, movement often felt awkward and unconvincing – elbows locked at sides or hands trapped in pockets – and actors routinely had problems grounding themselves. Pacing around a room is fine, but if you’re going to stay in one place, commit. In addition, very rarely did I ever notice a character come to a decision, make a choice, or have a discovery in their words or reactions. This left individual lines feeling stagnant, and gave every performance a one-note feeling. Energy is not about volume or intensity – it’s about finding the desire or realization or movement in every line and using it to get what the character wants. Finally, though Savage’s vocal performance remained strong, throughout the play – and especially in the final scene – his alternating sobbing and hyperventilating were quite overacted, to the point that it detracted from the play’s climax.
A final note on the script: Azevedo has presented a strong first play, and shows definite promise as a new writer. In fact, this script on its own is probably my favorite of this semester’s student-written works. Dialogue is strong, characters well-developed, and revelations are well-spaced throughout. In some respects, however, it still feels very much like a student play. Several plot elements were either unexplained or else did not make sense – how exactly, as an example, did they wind up in this situation in the first place? The script’s monologues were not as compelling as its dialogues, and the writing occasionally fell into the trap of telling rather than showing (“I’m pissed off!” A character exclaims at one point). Lastly, the play’s final 20 minutes were significantly weaker than the rest of the production, and frankly did not need to be included at all.
Despite the criticisms leveled here, the play had merit. Indeed, it had many redeeming qualities, and stands as a play unlike anything St Andrews has seen in my time here. But more often than not, I saw only the spark of a great idea or moment, only a glimpse of what this play could have been. Every piece of the creative puzzle showed promise, but remained unfulfilled or just out of sight.
All photos provided by Jamie Jones