Theatre review: The Mistakes Madeline Made, by Elizabeth Meriwether

Presented by No Name Players

Disguised from childhood,
haphazardly assembled
from voices and fears and little pleasures,
we come of age as masks.

R.M. Rilke

More than seventy years ago, a French playwright and theatre director, Antonin Artaud, introduced a dissenting observation: “Sophocles speaks grandly perhaps, but in a style that’s no longer timely. His language is too refined for this age, it is as if he were speaking beside the point.”

No Name Players, a group of professional Pittsburgh actors, seem to have been speaking to the point locally for more than ten years now. They are part of what is now known worldwide as a true-to-life theatre. Nothing exalted or ineffectual gains entrée to their experimental playground: the performances are short, colloquial, witty and based solely on ensemble collaboration and the players’ respect for each other’s talents. No more masterpieces, no more stars, no more lengthy and boastful brochures.

The company’s most recent choice, The Mistakes Madeline Made by Elizabeth Meriwether, directed by Marci Woodruff (Pitt Studio Theatre), is laden with the familiar symbols, realities and rituals of our neurotic age. It takes place in a world of fear and masked identity. All of the main characters are portrayals of knotted psyches, bruised by the unlived unconscious content that is never silent in them. The play can be perceived as an allegory of the debased and vulnerable modern self, the self that is largely atrophied by brutally efficient bureaucratic forces and injured by its own ineffective coping mechanisms.

The setting of the play is an odd kind of office where everybody is running errands for a rich family that the audience never gets to see, a sure breeding soil for all kinds of psychological deterioration. “We are a country of babies and secretaries,” observes the late war journalist Buddy (Todd Betker), parsing the karma of the corporate madness. Buddy’s sister Edna (Liz Roberts), still mourning her brother’s death and also becoming more and more disturbed by the absurdity of the office routine, develops ablutophobia, a fear of bathing – beyond the pale in a culture that fears uncleanness like the Last Judgment. Edna’s boss, Beth (Tressa Glover) is the master tamer of unruly office workers, but, ironically, a highly pitiful character herself. Beth’s extremely adaptive modus operandi is jam-packed with the artificiality of her hackneyed locution of choice: “confirm or deny,” the kind of office slang that forms the limit of her speech. Wilson’s (Don DiGiulio) caricature of the office life is expressed through his compulsive act of imitating the sounds of the copying machine. But Wilson is a romantic geek. His developing love for Edna leads this comedic spectacle of office horrors to a somewhat expected melodramatic conclusion. Ironically, Beth, who clearly lacks love and intimacy in her life, unintentionally fast-forwards the play to its sentimental conclusion: “Life is all about the tiny miracles of love.”

It would probably sound like a serious violation of the humble No Name Players’ intention if I were to praise their professionalism individually. But their merit in the amusing ensembles as well as in the jolting scenes kept the audience on the edge of their seats for the entire duration of the play.

The most obvious criticism of Meriwether’s play may be that it is so eclectic and packed with seemingly unrelated elements, that not even Woodruff’s directorial acrobatics can weave it together into a satisfyingly coherent whole. But is it a fault? Rilke’s lyric describes the human fate as “haphazardly assembled”; this is all the more true of work and leisure in our highly impatient, fragmented, spectacle-driven times.

Filed under: Prose, Reviews: Performing Arts, Rita Malikonyte Mockus