The Lighter Side of Death

I’ve been feeling a little like a sucker going to American Conservatory Theater lately, because I haven’t liked anything there this season aside from the season-opening import Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter.  But even with that sense of trepidation, Vigil seemed like a pretty good bet.

Marco Barricelli and Olympia Dukakis in Vigil. Photo by Kevin Berne

Former core company member Marco Barricelli (now artistic director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz) and frequent visiting artist Olympia Dukakis (an Oscar winner for Moonstruck) are both terrific actors who’ve been fantastic together in past ACT productions, and writer-director Morris Panych’s wordless staging of Gogol’s The Overcoat was a visiting highlight of the 2005-06 season. So despite the nagging feeling that somehow it was going to go terribly wrong, off I went.

Vigil is anything but wordless. In fact the air of the cluttered apartment fills with verbiage, never mind that it’s all from one character. An adult nephew has been summoned to his dying aunt’s bedside after hearing nothing from her for decades. When he gets there he still hears nothing from her. She just stares at his like he’s speaking a foreign language.

As the elderly invalid Grace, Dukakis occupies a double bed piles with pillows in Ken MacDonald’s marvelous set of a dilapidates flat piled with old knickknacks, all the doors and large wall full of windows leaning at steep angles.

From the moment Barricelli barges in as nephew Kemp, he reveals himself to be a sour-tempered, brusque misanthrope with a knack for saying a startling breadth of disagreeable things. “I didn’t expect you to be pleased to see me,” he says as soon as he arrives. “Hardly anyone ever is.”

The scenes are very, very short, separated by blackouts and a lively piano-and-violin score. “Let’s not talk about anything depressing,” Kemp says. “Do you want to be cremated?” That’s a whole scene. Especially early on, these bits are almost one-liners, so brief and punch-line-oriented they could be Laugh In quickies.

It’s helps that they’re also hilarious, between Panych’s sharp writing and crisp direction and Barricelli’s keen comic timing. It’s interesting seeing the forceful Barricelli in such a sad-sack role, but he pulls it off beautifully. For all that she doesn’t do much but react, Dukakis is terrific, initially regarding Kemp with a mixture of shock and distress like he’s a large bug, and gradually becoming a much more active participant in the conversation, even if she’s still not saying anything.

A lot of the humor comes from Kemp continually bringing up ideas for Grace’s funeral or the disposal of her body, and his growing impatience that it’s taking so long for her to die. “Why are you putting on makeup? Let the mortician do that.”

Not that he has anywhere better to be. As Kemp watches passers-by through the windows we learn that he lives a pretty miserable life and, what’s more, always has. Even when he’s kvetching petulantly about being cooped up there with her, he says, “I had friends! All right, acquaintances.” In fact he doesn’t like anyone very much, from himself to the children playing outside “like little insane drunken midgets.”

Soon seasons start to change, nicely captured in Alan Brodie’s shifting lighting through the wall of papered-over windows and the chirping and thundering of Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe’s sound design, and Kemp is still there, still grumpily looking after Grace in the same suit he walked in wearing and loudly wondering what on earth is taking so long.

Kemp is a compelling character, continually mining new levels of sociopathic inappropriateness, and Grace is such an intriguingly active listener that you do really wonder what her deal is. But all the little punch lines are gearing up for a big one, and while it’s hysterical it ultimately feels like a long way to go for a pretty thin gag, albeit a very funny one. As engaging as it is every step of the way it feels like a one-act story of less than 90 minutes stretched out to two hours with intermission instead. There are some lovely bittersweet moments along the way, and the end is terrific.  All and all it’s a marvelously enjoyable confection, so it’s hard to begrudge it if it feels a bit insubstantial after the fact.

Through April 18
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #40 of 2010, attended March 31.

Bonus links: My writeups of this season’s Phèdre andCaucasian Chalk Circle elsewhere on The Idiolect, and my past San Francisco Chronicle interviews with Barricelli and Panych.

About author

No comments yet.

Be first to leave your comment!




Your comment:

Add your comment