By Daedalus Howell
BRITISH DRAMATIST Robert Holman once remarked, "The novel is more of a whisper, whereas the stage is a shout." But Santa Rosa Junior College theatrical director Leslie McCauley is out to prove that novels can shout (or at least chatter audibly) with her verbatim staging of the fifth chapter of author Greg Sarris' novel Watermelon Nights.
Inspired by the work of the San Francisco-based theatrical troupe Word for Word (the company that pioneered word-for-word presentations of non-dramatic work), McCauley animates Sarris' coming-of-age tale about a young Native American man named Johnny (played by Zachary A. Hummell) caught between the world of a Santa Rosa Indian community and his dreams of becoming a clothing retailer in San Francisco.
More significant, however, is the fact that Johnny is gay and living under the homophobic scrutiny of his peers as he ponderously considers the nature of love. To complicate matters, Johnny finds himself attracted to the tight-lipped Felix (Jack Kohler), the brawling but charming Cro-Magnon who lords it over his social circle.
Hummell turns in an earnest and vivid performance as the emotionally troubled Johnny, who must nimbly navigate a psychological obstacle course lest he get his ass kicked. Hummell never unfurls his brow and anxiously trots the stage without letting the character default into a portrait of victimhood.
Conversely, Kohler's Felix prowls the scenery like some order of predatory jungle cat. Clad in a wife-beater undershirt and permanently pinching a cigarette (from which he awkwardly drags so as to flex his enormous biceps) between his thumb and forefinger, Kohler draws Felix as a valentine to sleaze. The cigarette effect, no matter how clumsily deployed (it is painfully obvious the actor is a non-smoker), does underscore the character's trumped-up bravado and, eerily, works.
A half dozen supporting characters round out the cast, who may, at any given point, be mewing or mooing as ad hoc cats or cattle. Among those allowed to act standing up are such standout performers as rubber-faced Drew Hirshfield (he steals the show as Dollface, a decrepit feline enthusiast) and Jessica Larson, who takes on the roles of an officious McDonald's clerk, a nurse and a bank teller.
Author Sarris' stylistic decision to write much of this chapter in a vernacular that chucks out conventional grammar for the sake of down-home dialogue ("knowed" instead of "knew," for example) may prove grating to some ears, though on paper it adds color to the text.
Indeed, the hazards of staging non-dramatic work are manifold, and though director McCauley successfully mitigates much of their impact, the fact is that the production often seems to default into a mere recitation of the work rather than an actorly interpretation of it.
Not every word of Sarris' text plays well onstage, which is just as well because he wrote a novel, not a play. However, a more formal interpretation of Sarris' often engaging work might have better served both the production and theatergoers.
That said, SRJC's production of Watermelon Nights remains important theater, not least because it addresses issues germane to the local Native American experience that are seldom, if ever, explored on Sonoma County stages.
'Watermelon Nights' plays on Thursday and Friday, Oct. 14 and 15, at 8 p.m. and on Saturday, Oct. 16, at 2 and 8 p.m. at the Burbank Auditorium, SRJC, 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. $7. 527-4342.
From the October 14-20, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.