Last week I got a chance to catch Gravedigger: The Plays of Mark Borkowski at the Walking Fish Theatre. Now in its final week, the production features three one-acts penned by the award-winning playwright and Kenso native.
The first act was The Mutilation of St Barbara, featuring Kirsten Quinn and Billy Edwards as a couple in their apartment, arguing about art, arousal and how they’ve come to find themselves so far from where they started as a couple. Edwards plays his character a bit too heavy handedly, and unfortunately as such comes off a little over the top to allow the scene to resonate the way I was wanting. Quinn throws out some nice anger, although the level and depth on her face plays much more piercingly than her vocal performance, and as such she owns her character best when left to silently boil. Michelle Pauls harnesses the tension well with her direction of the players moods and movements, while playing very subtly with the levels of contrast in this darkly comedic scene about an even darker relationship. While the best moments were silent and Mutilation ended up being my least favorite of the three, it still served as a nice primer for the rest of the acts.
The second act, A Gravedigger’s Tale, features Rob Cutler as the titular character. As an improviser, I’m well versed in Cutler’s comedic side, and it was nice to see him unleash a grittier, more bleak character than I’m used to. You might not expect to sympathize with a character that is so clearly little more than a heroin-addicted sychopant (so much so that he doesn’t even get a name beyond that of his job), but Cutler manages to use the purely pathetic nature of the Gravedigger to his advantage. Throughout the scene he leverages the character’s meagerness to play the fool for laughs, but more endearingly, wins us with a quiet empathy he shows for a drugged-out whore (played decently by Karina Croskrey). Kenneth John McGregor kills as a rough-and-tumble street kingpin who has the Gravedigger under his thumb. McGregor manages to make us laugh while never doubting his seriousness… and his booming voice coupled with his towering stature command the pace of the scene, for which he does not falter. Edwards makes another appearance in this act as a mid-level low-life, and redeems well as the character to hate in a graveyard full of hateful people. Kudos to Stan Heleva for his brave use of A LOT of dirt in a very intimate space. While some patrons might object, the dust on my tongue made me feel less like I was sitting in a theater and more like I was watching from behind a tombstone.
Twilight’s Child finds us joining a grieving couple in a diner for the final act, where the pace is slowed considerably. We get to enjoy Pauls onstage this act, playing a lamenting mother, inches away from complete madness. Pauls draws us in from the start, as I could have sat there an hour, entranced and unnerved by her sitting in a catatonic state of loss and pity. We quietly watch as the father, played superbly by Dennis Smeltzer, tries with all his waning energy to pull his wife back from nothingness. Juggling grief, anger, public embarrassment and desperate hope for a love he no longer can see, Smeltzer nails what I so long for in theater – a transparency where Smeltzer the actor disappears and all I’m left with is the character. I would be quite startled to find a happy, appreciative actor after the curtain falls. Whatever he’s tapped into for this role, I hope each audience gets to see it throughout the run. McGregor returns as the diner’s proprietor, with just enough wit staccatoed in as to not pull us down with the couple. Twilight’s Child is an incredibly slow and exacting reveal, thanks I’m sure in no small part to having Borkowski at the helm. It’s nearly always fantastic when a playwright can direct their own work, and I could find no exception here. Finally, the last moments leave us with an act of desperation so absurd, so contrastingly ridiculous, it can’t help but lift our spirits as we walk out the door.
Although the hometown Kensington angle doesn’t quite resonate through the work as something that could only happen here… I’m sure glad this show happened in my neighborhood.
Be advised, this show contains strong language, nudity, sexual themes, violence, sexual violence and drug use.
GRAVEDIGGER: THE PLAYS OF MARK BORKOWSKI
THROUGH MAY 23RD
WALKING FISH THEATRE | 2509 FRANKFORD AVE
$18 GENERAL ADMISSION / $12 STUDENTS & SENIORS
TICKETS AND DETAILS AT walkingfishtheatre.com