by Analyn Revilla
James Svatko, the producer of the play, “The Last Train” has taken this French written play and produced its first English and North American performance at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. He found the play in Stage32 and contacted the playwright, Natacha Astuto, who lives and works in Switzerland, and they worked together on the translation. After that, it was James who completed the work with his actors and director to present the truth of this psychological thriller.
In James’ own words, “There is no one truth but a series of truths that one often has to follow to get to the truth” With that, the team has been through a major revision since after the premier of the play at Schkapf Theatre last June 5th. As any living work of art, it will continue to evolve. Starting with the writer’s initial impulse, Natacha was curious about writing a play set in an enclosed environment. Her imagination brought her to two characters, incarcerated for at least 20 years, bunked in the same cell. She layered the secrets that the men keep to themselves which are the subtexts in every word uttered and every gesture displayed. This is neatly packaged by the careful surveillance of a female guard, who controls what passes in and out of the cell. However, this situation is incited by external forces – a storm and a visit from an unknown woman with unknown motives.
When James embarked on the journey, perhaps he had a roadmap at hand, or maybe he had a sketch of where he wanted to go with it. Upon reading the story, it was clear that the play would be demanding for any actor who is chosen for any one of the four characters. Though tempted to wear the hats of the producer, the actor and the director, he chose to give up the role of the director so that he could focus on playing the lead character of Jack.
Natacha was comfortable to allow the artists to interpret the play as they imagined it. She expressed her curiosity as to how her words would be acted upon on stage, and also what an American’s perspective could be. After the first two performances at the Fringe, she and her husband Cedric arrived from Switzerland. They decided to get involved by giving the cast and crew a little push (a la Natacha, “un petit coup de pouce utile”) to help them further along in translating and rendering the performance closer to the essence of the story. A psychological story is as complex as any human being. This story is a stew of four distinct personalities confined in a jail cell for an unbeknownst period of time, reigned upon by a freak thunderstorm that has knocked out the power and renders the doors of the cells inoperable. (It is in modern time as the cells are opened with a swipe card, and not the traditional keys.)
When I saw the premier of The Last Train on June 5th, James commented that he was just happy and relieved to get the first one out there, because of the anticipation and ‘premier’ jitters (par for the course). His main thrust in producing this play is to make an impact on people, to make them think and wonder to the point that they are drawn in, so that they have a conversation with the actors, at the end of the show, while they are still in character. This is a wonderfully creative way to evolve the story.
I told James that I wish I had not read the play before seeing the premier, because I had set myself up with expectations. I walked out of the theatre feeling, ‘huh…, so that’s how it was interpreted on stage.’ I had hoped for more, and it’s not fair to hope for more, because I had already built the story in my imagination from my first absorption. I suppose it is like the first time you make love. Subsequent experiences after the first time will be different.
So, I was enthusiastic to see the noticeable differences between the first performance and the one that had been tailored with insight and suggestions by Natacha and Cedric. The first was Robert, played by Benjamin Mitchell. In the premier he bolted like a young and unbridled colt dissipating energy; while in the second interpretation he started as smoldering embers building up to a fury. I found this was powerful, because it built up the suspense. Benjamin commented that he had contemplated on the cue that Robert is a ticking time bomb, so he adjusted his tempo to be a slowly burning fuse. Jack was also more defined personality in the revised version. These adjustments help us, the audience, to perceive these psychological phases roll out, like wheels moving forward on pavement. Each revolution is the same, but different in space in time. It is Jack, but it’s not the same Jack in the previous scene.
In the first 3 scenes, the interactions between Robert and Jack, establishes that Jack is the reasonable, mature and mothering type. When the conversation tilts on being out of control, he is quick to diffuse a potential heated situation with ‘Want some tea?’ He appears as the normal one who can gauge situations, have perspective and act with reason. He shows his capacity for compassion when he appears concerned over Robert’s attempted suicide, and possibilities of him trying again with success. He bides his time with the hope of getting out on early parole for good behavior. His character could be described by someone from the parole board as a ‘well-adjusted’ individual.
James clarifies the psychological stages that the character of Jack transmutes from beginning to end, starting with the nurturing type with Robert. Upon the arrival of the mysterious and provocative Louise (played by Victoria Hopkins), who insists to meet the men in the cell, and to conduct her interview in the cell, he changes to contemplation then suspicion. Why would she want to expose herself to two strangers incarcerated for manslaughter in a confined room? Her questions are strangely non-threatening and almost pointless: “How long have you been incarcerated?”, “What’s your schedule on a typical day?” Has she not done her homework before hand; looked at their files to know the answers to these questions? Her motive becomes apparent only after she’s alone with Jack.
The scene, before the last, reveals the true nature of Jack’s illness. As he answers her questions in the midst of the brewing storm that knocks down the power, he decides that she is not someone from the parole board evaluating his mental fitness to be released from incarceration, so he seizes the chance to incite Robert by taunting him as being paranoid. James aptly describes the last phase as the realization phase, because Jack goes into action upon recognizing Louise Dupont. “Dupont. You could have found something better”.
The movements between the phases happen quickly in a 1 hour play. It takes thought, technique and execution to convey the psychological moments in live theatre, in the absence of the omniscient narrator, and the team has done this all very well.
Just as Benjamin had made adjustments to his character then this also affects the other characters. Victoria (Louise) toned down her sexual allure between the premier and the 5th performance. I thought this was also powerful, because it complimented Robert’s slow burn. Though conscious of Robert’s sexuality and veiled threats; her target is Jack, and she needs to preserve herself for that purpose. Louise is a mother who suffers, and she needs vengeance to appease her loss like the Greek goddess Demeter who walks and searches under every rock for her daughter Persephone. Jack is not compliant, as he distances himself to assess the situation so that he can navigate the situation to his advantage.
Marianne (played by Jennifer Lewis) upped her ante in the game in the revised performance. She was more invested, and this was important, because she needs to expound that she is the figure of authority in this menagerie. Marianne oversees the two men, and has probably known them for as long as they’ve been in jail. She’s a woman in an all-male environment, and she’s proud of it, as though only she has the capacity for this work. In her mind, in her unique position, she has to prove that she is in control at all times.
I asked James if there were purposeful crossovers of elements of a Greek tragedy in this particular production. His response was only in the direct violence that plays out between Louise and Jack. I also noted hubris, because Robert is a proud man. His pride is his downfall in that he overlooks other possibilities that he is the normal one, and that he is worthy of being free again. His pride keeps him strong to accept his sentence. He is dynamic because he struggles with his conscience, whereas Jack does not. He is purposeful and ruthless to achieve his goal. C’est fait accomplit. He is not capable of transformation. He can only show his character’s chameleon abilities – to hide the truth and is therefore evil natured. Natacha made the point in our interview that we don’t know where evil lies, and so we can be duped by appearances.
By now, as we are near the close of the festival, and The Last Train is at the eve of its last performance the cast, the director, Justin Morosaand Natacha and Cedric are transformed by this worthy journey of bringing us this well thought out and performed work. Justin described that with each performance he wants to get closer to the truth. The Last Train IS a heart-full performance, and the team has given us the opportunity to mine deeper into the human heart. Last performance is tomorrow night at 10:15 at Schkapf Theatre.