Review: Seminar at Fells Point Corner Theatre

TheatreBloom rating:

Fiction is fiction. The type of truth that fiction is sets a bomb off in your soul and Fells Point Corner Theatre is busy setting off emotionally and comically charged bombs galore in their production of Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar. Directed by Steve Goldklang, the biting wit of Rebeck’s esoteric literary comedy lands with grand aplomb just in time to shake up the scene for the holiday season. Not your typical Santaland story or in any way, shape, or form related to the encroaching holiday season, FPCT is offering a palette cleansing comedy this time of year that will challenge your morality, and leave you chuckling at the higher intellectual lunacy of writers and their fictions.

(l to r) Martin (Michael Zemarel), Kate (Anne Shoemaker), Douglas (Alex Smith), Izzy (Cassandra Dutt), and Leonard (Eric C. Stein)
(l to r) Martin (Michael Zemarel), Kate (Anne Shoemaker), Douglas (Alex Smith), Izzy (Cassandra Dutt), and Leonard (Eric C. Stein) Chelsea Dove

A posh apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan is the show’s main setting. Director Steve Goldklang keeps the scenic design elements simple, allowing the audience to focus on the verbose literary battles constructed within the confines of Rebeck’s work. The extremely literary specific language and references makes a great deal of the show’s dialogue heady and dense for those not well-versed in the field. Goldklang’s perceptive direction, however, encourages the cast to exploit emotional experiences into the essence of the language rather than just the words in the same vein of communicating concepts through Shakespearean English.

Goldklang’s attention to pacing keeps the performance moving as does the rather calamitous, albeit intriguing, soundscape featured between scene changes. Sound Designers Andrew Porter and Stanley Kudzen infuse a cacophony of sound that is so jarring in its jazzy overblown essence that it suits the chaos of the show and by extension the bustle of New York City life to perfection. The blaring horns race to a tempo that moves as fast as the scenes in the performance; a striking compliment to the show’s overall momentum.

While the highbrow proclivity of the show may make it seem inaccessible to audiences outside the literary writer’s field, the five actors work exceptionally hard to reward the audience with raw emotions, thoroughly developed characters, and a string of evocative moments that hit spikes and lows of intensity so suddenly that the whole experience is intellectually invigorating. Delving into the core of these characters and their vulnerabilities, the five actors in the production deliver stellar performances consistently throughout; each unique in their own right.

(l to r) Izzy (Cassandra Dutt), Kate (Anne Shoemaker), and Martin (Michael Zemarel)
(l to r) Izzy (Cassandra Dutt), Kate (Anne Shoemaker), and Martin (Michael Zemarel) Chelsea Dove

Izzy (Cassandra Dutt) is a character of seemingly simplistic function. Dutt’s character has a surface beauty and an overwhelming vapid essence that generates a rather lifeless energy on its own. Dutt’s portrayal, however, creates a dynamic individual inside of Rebeck’s blank shell of Izzy. The sensual moments are spiked with intensity, the silent moments of judgment laced with a piercing gaze; the internalized understanding of her depth displayed primarily through simple gestures and phrases.

Douglas (Alex Smith) reeks of pretention. Smith embodies the hoity yuppie with a sense of egotistical entitlement but balances that annoying repugnance with a more fragile internal energy that only filters through in flashes. His approach to the stiff-upper lip in the face of Leonard’s criticism creates a rousing dichotomy between that and Martin’s (Michael Zemarel) manner of handling it.

Martin (L- Michael Zemarel) and Kate (R- Anne Shoemaker)
Martin (L- Michael Zemarel) and Kate (R- Anne Shoemaker) Chelsea Dove

Zemarel, as the perpetually unsettled and insecure character, gives a rather milquetoast performance at first. But as the character blossoms into emotional instability his performance expands exponentially. Zemarel delivers one of the more intense and emotionally charged monologues in the performance, albeit at the top of his vocal volume, but the drive behind it is both raw and engaging.

Leonard (L- Eric C. Stein) and Kate (R- Anne Shoemaker)
Leonard (L- Eric C. Stein) and Kate (R- Anne Shoemaker) Chelsea Dove

Acting as two contending forces in this face-paced intellectual comedy are Kate (Anne Shoemaker) and Leonard (Eric C. Stein.) Polar opposites in their characters it is the tension between the pair, and by created in each others’ absence, that drives a good portion of the performance. Shoemaker masters the bitter, jaded and utterly frustrated notions of her character while simultaneously managing to whine, brood, fuss, and fizzle over the verbal abuse that Leonard spews forth at her. Stein defines the surly character with a blasé panache that augments his arrogant airs. The fascinating moment that turns the play on its head comes during an incredibly intimate divulgence delivered by Stein’s character. The raw humanity that surfaces in that moment late in the performance showcases Stein’s ability to truly find the heartbeat of a character, regardless of how unctuous or pompous.

It’s a 90 minute learning lesson that schools the audience into questioning their morals and potentially their sanity. Well acted, well written, and well directed, what more could one ask for in a comedy?  

Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes with no intermission

Seminar plays through December 7, 2014 at the Fells Point Corner Theatre— 251 S. Ann Street in Fells Point in Baltimore, MD. Tickets are available for purchase at the door or in advance online.

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