The first few steps of any arts organization are always the most important. You need to be a quick study, to build on previous efforts so observers are tantalized by both progress and possibility.
Chalk up one in that column for Makalani Theatre Ensemble. Their second year’s effort topped the first in various respects.
The most obvious was in the selection of work; Yasmina Reza’s 1998 Tony Award-winner “Art” is a great choice. Last seen in these parts at Mobile Theatre Guild some 15 years ago, its themes of subjectivity, perception and the shifts of personality and friendship are as salient now as ever.
The cast is 50 percent larger than last year’s two-person work, “Brilliant Traces.” The trio of characters allows for more twists and turns, increasing the emotional pugilism on display.
The black-box theater-in-the-round in the University of South Alabama’s Laidlaw Performing Arts Building seats roughly 50 to 60 and the coziness works. Its intimacy helps with the uncomfortable air marking the final 10 to 15 minutes.
The set design too employs more creativity this time around. Still minimalistic — more so without the scattering of accoutrements in last year’s imaginary Alaskan cabin — yet there’s an employ of varying levels in angular relationships that gives it more subtle complexity. It is analogous to the characters and their relationships.
The play opens with characters Marc and Serge facing each other from opposite corners, the primal thump of a double bass buttressing a latent tension. The rhythm might as well be the chime of a ringside bell.
It seems Serge spent a relative fortune on a stark, white canvas of modern art. For him, it’s testimony to his sophistication.
Marc’s opening lines bear the unabashed needling only afforded by years of friendship. He thinks the art overrated and Serge pretentious.
Each man turns to beleaguered Yvan to voice irritation with the other. The third friend wants to avoid conflict as he is navigating the insanity of an approaching wedding. Ultimately, Yvan’s “live and let live” tack only exacerbates matters.
Kudos go to the costumer. Remember the old saw about glimpsing someone’s personality through their shoes? It applies here and works its way up.
Traditionalist Marc, who likes his paintings to be landscapes, wears earth-toned saddle oxfords. He tops it with conservative garb – knit shirt and khakis – that would allow him to meld into a Mobile social scene.
Serge’s stylish dress shoes are more cosmopolitan, matched with dress slacks and a natty sweater. He obviously considers himself both urban and urbane.
Neurotic Yvan pads around in boots. His jeans and flapping shirttail give the hint of a guy whose self-image is somewhat laid back, maybe even irresponsible.
Another change from last year is the heightened comedy. As Marc, Robert Wells III often breaks the fourth wall to glance at the audience as if they naturally find Serge’s behavior as amusing as he does. He also projects a suppressed intensity that somehow fits with his character’s judgmental outlook.
Christopher Peck’s Serge isn’t as mirthful but the actor’s timing is strong. He also reflects a natural quality in his portrayal sorely missing from many local productions.
In a reversal of last year, South Alabama professor Peck stars while his colleague Keone Fuqua directs. The pair birthed Makalani’s first production.
While supposedly a mess, Fulton Burns’ angst-filled Yvan would fit just as well in a Woody Allen flick as on stage. His rant about matrimonial ordeal was the comedic apex of the show.
When the animosity between Serge and Marc finally boils over, it becomes clear how much they are using Yvan and it becomes uncomfortable. When they turn on him, you just want them to stop attacking the person whose overriding goal is armistice.
If you’re at least middle-aged and familiar with life’s circuitous course, the subject matter has relevance. None of us remains stagnant or dormant – not those interested in discovery and growth, anyway – and the price it exacts isn’t always obvious or avoidable.
Makalani’s goal is to up the theatrical bar for Mobile. They’ve managed to do it for themselves with this year’s effort and hopefully ascension looms.
“Art” runs through June 7. Evening performances are at 8 p. m. Sunday matinee is at 2 p.m. In a wonderful move intended to reward diligence, there’s an understudy performance Saturday, June 6, at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door, $12 for students and military. Cash, check and credit cards are accepted.
Tickets can be ordered through Makalani’s Facebook site or via universe.com/mtepresentsart. A service charge will be applied to online sales.
Direct email inquiries to [email protected].