Thursday, July 20, 2000

Attraction of 'Mecca' missing from local group's production

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Athol Fugard's delicate and lyrical The Road to Mecca is suffering a death by bludgeoning by Ovation Theatre. The murder most foul continues this weekend at the Fifth Third Bank Theater.

        Set in the mid-1970s in a South African backwater town, Mecca is about aging Miss Helen (Ellie Shepherd) who, since her husband's death years ago, devotes herself to turning her cottage into a magical, light-filled place and the surrounding yard into a strange and wondrous sculptural menagerie.

        The villagers don't understand her and think her half-mad; her one source of salvation has been young Elsa (Kate Brauer), who came one day, saw what Helen saw and earned Helen's unending devotion.

        But Elsa lives and teaches hundreds of miles away while Helen grows older in an unwelcome environment led by the local minister (Harry Cepluch). He wants to cage her free spirit in a nursing home, all in the name of Christian goodness.

        Mecca concerns itself with a pivotal evening when Elsa is brought back by a desperate letter even as the minister shows up to persuade Helen to sign her spiritual death warrant — an agreement to enter the home.

        For all that Mecca is about aging and artistic expression and the artist's place in society (any society), it is primarily about how our relationships affect us.

        Mr. Fugard digs beneath the surface to the deeper layers we hold secret. And as always with Mr. Fugard, more is left unsaid than said, but not unfelt.

        It's that slow illumination of internal places that make Mecca as breathtaking a discovery as the transformative magic of Miss Helen's self-revealing art.

        It's astounding that a theater company that can see the beauty of Mecca and choose to do it could go so terribly wrong.

        Mr. Fugard demands that actors communicate an internal life. None of the performers in Mecca do. In fact, they settle for one-note performances, and the wrong notes at that, until the closing moments of the show. But after 21/2 hours, the audience is numb.

        Ms. Shepherd is merely fretful as Ms. Helen. Oddly enough, her performance is almost explained by Ms. Brauer's Elsa, who could paralyze anyone. Ms. Brauer takes her troubled character and plays her relentlessly loud, agressive and cruel, bordering on abusive. Our urge is not to discover her hidden self but to run from the theater or drive her out of it.

        Never for a moment do you believe in any kind of relationship between the women. You can't even believe it takes Helen until the second act to smack Elsa, although it's the most fake love-tap imaginable.

        Mr. Cepluch keeps his character's inner self too well hidden and his round-toned delivery adds a whiff of Snidely Whiplash villainy to the minister's mere small-mindedness. Even worse, Ms. Brauer's excess has the minister making more sense than Elsa.

        Shame on everybody, starting with director Dennis Murphy, who allows these wretched performances and then stages them with the predictability of a cuckoo clock. Every time somebody has something to say they hop to their feet and pace. Mr. Murphy's set is better than his direction, although not as fanciful as it should be.

        I'll also heap some shame on the show's producers. When they saw what was happening they should have done something (no matter how extreme) to correct the problem.

        As Ovation strives (with several other young companies) to earn “semi-professional” status, Mecca reminds us that art isn't easy — and that part of theater producing is vigilance.

        The Road to Mecca, Ovation Theatre, through Saturday, Aronoff Center Fifth Third Bank Theater. 241-7469.


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