08 Feb TheatreFirst offers new way of looking at ‘Grapes of Wrath’

By Pat Craig
Contra Costa Times Correspondent

AT TIMES, TheatreFirst’s production of “Grapes of Wrath” has the rhythm and feel of a jazz piece — not in the music, although there’s plenty of that, but in the music of the words and how they’re delivered by the eight actors in this captivating piece.

In his watershed novel about the fictional Joad family escaping the Dust Bowl for what they presume will be a better life in the promised land of California, Steinbeck infused the piece with the music of the road to create his Depression-era tragedy.

Frank Galati adapted the novel for the stage, and director Jon Tracy put his own touch on the story, incorporating music, song and the percussion of found objects to set the tone.

The tale has found new resonance with contemporary audiences facing their own economic uncertainties and fears.

As presented by TheatreFirst, the story plays well to audiences with its style — even more than the elegant, eloquent 1940 black-and-white film.

And, for theatre fans, the play presents an exciting new way of looking at “The Grapes of Wrath” — from an engagingly different theatrical standpoint. There is certainly a “hey, let’s put on a show” feeling to the production, where the actors mingle with the audience as it strolls into the black box theatre.

There is no fourth wall here, and intentionally so, it would seem. The actors begin telling their story with objects they find on the stage. There seems to be very

little division between actors and audience, making the whole tale all the more poignant.The acting is quite stylized, with lines often played as poetry or readers’

theatre to make a point. Very much is made of light (designed by Michael Palumbo) and darkness as the actors create a car out of a bed frame, boards and boxes, or dig graves in the real dirt that covers about a third of the stage.

Props (Devon LaBelle), set pieces (Martin Flynn) and costumes (Maggi Yule) also contribute to the impact of the show, where women play men at times, character changes are accomplished by something as simple as changing a hat, and the steering wheel on the Joads’ car is simulated with a round straw mat.

The actors — Michael Barrett Austin, Alex Hersler, Danielle Levin, Roy Landaverde, Emily Morrison, Rebecca Pingree, Kelly Strickland and Ryan Tasker — are first-rate, not only in the characterizations but in the pinpoint timing demanded by Tracy to make the whole thing work.

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