Behind the Music

It seems more and more rare to find plays that are uniquely theatrical. The lines between the artistic mediums have blurred to the point that there exists little distinction. For every brilliantly reinvented Sweeney Todd revival that could thrive only on the stage, there exists countless generic, Lifetime TV-movie rip-offs masquerading as insightful dramas. Television shows are made from movies. Movies are made from television shows. Plays are all too often glorified sitcoms or disease-of-the-week melodramas—or, worse, forced musicals adapted from mediocre movies. That which was once unique to each medium, particularly theater, has become pedestrian. Kate E. Ryan's mock-rockumentary Mark Smith is a noble attempt at marrying the genres, transferring to the stage the This Is Spinal Tap/A Mighty Wind style of moviemaking. Produced by 13P, a collective of playwrights working together to produce 13 new plays by 13 playwrights, the piece is an intriguing union of documentary filmmaking and live theater, with a campy dose of E! True Hollywood Story. The results are a mixed bag.

Still, Ryan has created a funny and surprisingly touching story. The play goes "behind the music" to explore the rise and fall of an 80's rock star, Mark Smith, the lead singer of the band Cheetah, which has fallen into obscurity. The unseen filmmakers explore Mark's fictional hometown by interviewing people who knew him or were influenced by him. Included are his mother and sister, his high school music teacher, his hair stylist, his girlfriend, and a devoted fan, among others.

Ryan's writing is particularly effective when telling the story of the mother and sister. The former, Margaret, is half-paralyzed on one side and limps about the house showing off pictures of a young Mark and proudly telling stories about his boyhood. Meanwhile, his younger, timid, and jealous sister, now a grown woman working at a local store, keeps her place in the background, as she has her whole life. The two women's stories are the most real, equal parts funny (their personalities) and sad (their lives).

The supremely talented six cast members play multiple roles to great effect. Alissa Ford is especially effective as Mark's mother, transforming her body into that of an elderly woman, complete with physical limitations and an affected speech pattern. She gives a transcendent performance.

Melissa Miller also does fine work, as Laurie, the teenage fan obsessed with Smith and his band. Fidgeting and stammering with insecurity, Miller realistically portrays a shy teenager lost in her musical obsession.

Each of the six actors inhabits his or her roles with conviction, creating a fully realized and three-dimensional performance that holds the show together even during its weaker moments. At those points, the play loses focus, weaving in and out of stories with no connection to Mark (particularly the superfluous story line featuring Mark's music teacher and his band of musicians).

Remaining true to the jumpy patchwork of documentary filmmaking, the play is composed of short scenes that start in the middle and end shortly thereafter. This creates many obstacles, but Ken Rus Schmoll's inventive direction fills in many of these story line gaps. Schmoll takes us literally behind the scenes as the audience watches each set change. He also has the actors assume their places in the setup of the upcoming scene as the set is being changed.

The concept of image as a manipulated and prepackaged persona is a major theme of the play, and Schmoll touches upon this with the clever use of melodramatic music cues and the aforementioned set changes, evoking the laughably serious atmosphere found in so many celebrity exposés. But as the play goes on, these changes become self-indulgent and too long, lacking the quickness that the medium of film permits.

Ultimately, Ryan has overwritten the show, yet at the same time, she has underdeveloped the story lines, leaving the play unfocused. It's not about Mark or Margaret or the family or the community—or some of these or all of these. It's about the concept of writing a mockumentary-style movie as a play.

This uneven playwriting exercise emphasizes style over substance, and it's all very familiar in an age of behind-the-scenes schlock TV. Even so, Ryan has managed to create a rich and complex assortment of characters. Mark Smith and her writing excel when the talented cast is allowed to tell her stories.

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