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February 14, 2012

'Bittersweet' leaves a bad taste

In honor of Valentine’s Day, the Hyde Park Community Players hosted Bittersweet Love, a performance of two of William Inge’s one-act plays, Glory in the Flower and Strains of Triumph, at the Experimental Station in Hyde Park. Although they had noble intentions, the end result was a somewhat lackluster performance of these short plays.

Both plays are relatively obscure works that have recently been discovered as masterpieces. The first play Glory in the Flower derives its title from William Wordsworth’s “Splendour in the Grass,” an apt title considering its theme: love lost and never regained. An aging high school piano teacher named Jackie (Mela Woods) runs into her old high school sweetheart Bus (Eric Roberts) at the Paradise Bar. A simple platform inside of the Experimental Station served as the set, but the stage’s small size and proximity to the audience gave the show a homey Midwestern milieu.

Auxiliary characters include a gang of high school students, a friendly bartender named Howie (Terrie Vasilopoulos), and an old man named Ben (Jeff Verlanic). The scenes were blocked awkwardly; Woods and Roberts acted more like acquaintances than former lovers. Even at the most tense moment of the play, Woods failed to deliver a passionate response to Roberts’s desperate pleas.

Occasionally, Verlanic would provide comic relief with inappropriately timed outbursts about wanting to remain free on the road, but the majority of the play consisted of brief exchanges with the characters about the play’s ideas about youth, nostalgia, and relationships.

Significantly shorter than Glory in the Flower, Strains of Triumph takes place at Kansas University in the spring of 1963. The crew transformed the set from Paradise Bar to a hill overlooking a stadium by dismantling the bar set and rolling out a strip of turf.

However, the passion lacking in the first play was uncontrollable in Strains of Triumph. Young couple Ann (Stephanie Litchfield) and Tom (Adam Rosenthal) have quickly fallen in love and have plans to wed. However, Ann’s childhood friend Ben (Jeff Verlanic) cannot come to terms with the fact that he will lose his closest friend and secret love to a rival teammate (both run track). An unnamed professor (Paul Baker) finds Ben lamenting in the fetal position and quickly comes to his aid. Throughout the play, the other three characters try to console the protagonist Ben, but his passion cannot be contained.

Strains of Triumph is far more enjoyable than Glory in the Flower, largely because of the professor character. With a cane and a wizened brow, the professor tried to instill knowledge on the tortured Ben with words like “memory idealizes the past,” and a discussion about the pitfalls of living vicariously through others. The setting of the top of a hill, isolated from others, is significant because the professor often talks about how he loved from afar and watched others and commented on their successes without fully living. Both Ben and the professor are tragically trapped on the hill away from the stadium because neither can accept reality and move on.

Though the plays were thematically similar and both set in the same time period, it seemed rather strange that these two plays were meshed together into one performance, because they differed in tone and type of characters. However, the Hyde Park Community Players is a relatively new group, looking to gain an audience in the community through their unusual production choices.

In 2009, the Hyde Park Players hosted their first production. Since then, the organization has continued to grow in the past three years with the mission of fostering a love of theater in Hyde Park and the surrounding communities.

Ironically, their posters first attracted me to the event—while this organization may have good advertising techniques, the Hyde Park Community Players may need to hone their acting skills before hitting the stage again in June.

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