When I went to the Bartell for Thornton Wilder & Companions by Mercury Players Theatre, I overheard the man sitting next to me say, "I love coming to Mercury's shows. They're always...weird." This is a surprisingly apt description of the evening of nine short plays (through Nov. 23).
Five early works by Wilder share the stage with four 10-minute plays by Madison-area playwrights Philip Heckman, Nick Schweitzer, Sam White and R. Thomas Wilson. With tones and themes that vary greatly -- from a didactic morality play about the dangers of prejudice, to melodramatic deathbed revelations, to larger examinations of our place in the universe -- the production's component parts are woven together by a familiar Wilder convention: a narrator (Jake Jacobson) who gives a bit of background and sets each scene. A company of more than a dozen actors undertakes the pieces, playing shipwrecked sailors, Greek gods and goddesses, wannabe country music stars and much more.
Jacobson's sonorous voice reverberates through the small venue not only between plays, but also as the narrator of the longest piece of the evening, Wilder's Pullman Car Hiawatha, which is also the most ambitious and compelling of the plays. A bit like a rough draft of Wilder's most famous work, Our Town, the 30-minute piece examines the everyday lives of its passengers, all traveling by train from New York to Chicago. Each is facing various crises, from a leaky hot water bottle to sudden grave illness. As one traveler dies, the scene is examined from many more perspectives: philosophical, theological, and astronomical, among others. The final "symphony" scene is both highly theatrical and compelling.
The original play that most complemented the Wilder shorts was Thorn's Wild West, by R. Thomas Wilson. A tongue-in-cheek illustration of the author's sabbatical in the Southwest, it was filled with literary allusions and comic sendups of other prominent artists of the 1930s.
The set is composed only of a few tables, chairs, and platforms that are endlessly rearranged. In the director's notes, Ned O'Reilly asserts that this is to focus on the work of the actors, as Thornton Wilder would have preferred. And indeed, it is the actors' performances that elevate several of the pieces above the rest.
For example, Candace Buck was riveting to watch in each of her incarnations across three of the plays. Her characters -- a nurse, the goddess Lachesis and a doomed sailor -- benefited from her commitment, her commanding presence and rich vocal inflections. Jason Compton was also quite entertaining in a variety of roles, including Thornton Wilder himself.
And although this collection of plays may be characterized as "weird," it is admirable as well. Mercury Players consistently chooses unknown, challenging pieces and encourages playwrights by producing new work. The company should also be lauded for offering a completely free opening-night performance, underwritten by the Madison Arts Commission, as well as post-show talkbacks.
Though Thornton Wilder & Companions could benefit from some editing -- it is at least one play too long -- it is an intriguing, engaging and strange celebration of an iconic Madison-born playwright and local writers who practice his craft.