Dylan Thomas was right – you actually can hear the dew falling. Listen properly and you will even hear time passing. Sound difficult? It’s not. All you have to do is bring your ears to Theatre 3 for Intimation Theatre Company’s lovely production of Under Milk Wood. Thomas’ “Play for Voices” is an ode to sound. Written for the radio, or simply to be read as opposed to fully staged, the piece takes its listeners, or in this case its wide-eyed viewers, through a night and a day of a sleepy Welsh seaside town. Like a landscape painter, Thomas penned the characters of Llareggub to life, gently leading us from their nighttime dreams to their spring morning routines and all the way back to bed. His language is as bubbly to the ears as it was when he wrote the play more than fifty years ago.
Director Michelle Dean uses the bare set and her company of actors to bring out much of the comic brilliance of Thomas’ script, which could otherwise remain hidden. True to the text, much of the actors’ character building seems to have stemmed from voice work, only then wearing their physicalization over the sound like a cloak. The eccentric locals of Llareggub are given bold life in this production.
The company on the whole is strong, and Dean keeps the tempo of the evening fast-paced and steady. John Mervini provides the most captivating performance, with a commendable comic intensity and commitment to all three of his roles. “Let me shipwreck in your thighs,” he pleads straight-forwardly as Captain Cat to one of the ladies still alive only in his memory. Jesse Tandler is endearing as Willie Nillie, and Betsy Head is charmingly seductive as the singing, scrubbing Polly Garter who laments the various male organs (and the men attached to them) that delighted her senses long ago.
The company has managed to create a delicate balance between character and actor, imagined reality and the plain one of gathering in midtown for a play, between Wales and New York City. The skipping nature of the writing, rapidly hopping from place to place and scene to scene, demands an ability to flow in and out of character. The offstage actors are visible standing in the wings, and at times even hand costume pieces or props to one another as they glide into their next role. Not shying away from acknowledging that we are in the theater provides a richer experience for this play. It is the awareness that the audience is sitting together like a bunch of children being caressed to sleep with a soft lullaby that puts a smile on your face as you walk out of the theater.
The production errs when it does not trust Thomas’ sound waves, and overloads the eye with activity to drown out the Welshman’s ear candy. Thankfully this only happens a couple of times over the course of the evening and so does not mar the experience. Dean does reference directly the fact that the play was written to be read, not physicalized. Voices One and Two, who function as narrators, move around the stage with script in hand, communicating directly with the audience. Nonetheless, a simple way to address the sonic purpose of the play would have been to hear voices in the darkness, which the spectators never get to a chance to do in this production.
The poetry of the everyday, about which Dean talks in her program’s note, is a theme explored more and more these days on New York’s Off and Off Off Broadway stages. It is enlightening to see how this was handled by a poetic great of another place and time. Much like Wim Wenders latest film, Lisbon Story, another inquiry into the humming noises of the everyday, this production finds ways to talk about the nature of sound through a visual medium. It is indeed a promising inaugural production for the Intimation Theatre Company.