Characterization Via The Fourth Wall

Who They Are Based On How They Acknowledge The Audience

Apr. 4, 2010
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For a variety of reasons, Next Act’s new show the Value of Names has been a lot of fun to think about over the course of the next day. One of the more subtle aspects of the show that won’t make it into my print review this coming week is the production’s rather interesting use of the fourth wall for characterization . . .

Written by Jeffrey Sweet, the play features three different characters:

Norma Silverman: Chicago-based actress Kelsey Brennan plays a struggling, young actress who has just landed a potentially big role in a play. She’s the daughter of a very prominent actor who was blacklisted in the ‘50’s by the House Un-American Activities Committee. On numerous occasions, Jeffrey Sweet allows Norma the opportunity to provide a little background narration by directly addressing the audience. An impressive emerging talent herself, Brennan delivers the bits of monologue directly to the audience in a clean, professional manner—perfectly in line with the stage presence of a character who is an actress attempting to establish herself.

Benny Silverman: Talented longtime Milwaukee actor Robert Spencer plays Norma’s father—the aforementioned blacklisted actor who has nonetheless managed to become quite successful over the years. A man who has crafted an identity for himself onstage over the years, Benny has sort of a lived-in stage presence about him. The entire play is set on his back patio in Malibu and Spencer looks very casual and very comfortable as Silverman—quite often looking beyond the audience to paint the hills. Benny is an affable guy who doesn’t mind relating to the audience every now and then, but it’s usually in response to something Norma is telling them. His relationship to the third wall feels friendly and casual. He’s clearly at ease around a large group of people. This is clearly a man who has spent his life entertaining people. It’s a fun performance.

Leo Greshen: Veteran actor John Kishline plays the man who named Benny before HUAC—effectively killing his career for years. Greshen went on to become a rather successful filmmaker who evidently still occasionally directs a play or two. He has been called-in as a replacement for the director in charge of the play Norma is appearing in, resulting in the inevitable confrontation between him and Benny. Kishline plays the role with polish and poise . . . he never directly addresses the third wall the way Norma (or even Benny) does, but he seems to know it’s there. Kishline’s big success in this role is bringing across the personality of an intellectual politician. Any successful filmmaker who has managed to carve a career for him or herself in Hollywood is, at the heart of things, a really successful politician—someone who can cleverly negotiate relations between producers, techies and creative types . . . and Kishline does a really good job of bringing that kind of personality to the stage here. He knows he’s onstage and to a certain extent he knows he’s still on trial for what he did before . . . but he never directly acknowledges that there’s an audience.

Next Act Theatre’s The Value Of Names runs through May 2nd, 2010. A full review of the play runs in this week’s Shepherd-Express.


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