Thursday, January 8, 2009

Ecstasy (Horse Trade Theatre)

By Le-Anne
• a solid production • real "slice-of-life" feel • some nuditymore about characters and relationships, less about plot

BOTTOM LINE: If you like British entertainment and gritty, character-driven pieces, you will greatly enjoy this show.

Think of the word "ecstasy" and a flash of images, possibly R-rated ones, plaster themselves on the brain along with various feelings of personal comfort or discomfort as the case may be. Some people take pleasure in watching others, strangers, experience ecstasy, while others find it a disturbing invasion of something personal and private. So when I was greeted with full frontal nudity, both male and female, at the Black Door Theatre Company/ Horse Trade Theater Group’s recent revival of Mike Leigh’s Ecstasy, I thought, or rather feared, I knew what lay in store for me. Images raced through my head of exhibitionism and embarrassingly self-indulgent performances, as I prepared for an awkward 2 hours. Much to my pleasure I could not have been more wrong.

What then, is ecstasy? According to one definition, and probably the most commonly understood definition, in Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition it is “a feeling of overpowering joy; great delight; rapture.” Director Sara Laudonia’s favorite definitions of ecstasy, per her director’s note in the program, are 1. a subjective experience of total involvement of the subject with an object of his or her awareness and 2. (from the Greek) to be or stand outside oneself, a removal to elsewhere (ex meaning out, stasis meaning a stand or a stand off of forces). This reviewer came across a few more definitions that lend insight to the meaning of this play title, 1. A state of being overpowered by emotion, as by joy, grief, or passion, 2. A trance, 3. The etymology of the word in Late Latin, exstasis, terror, 4. The Greek, ekstasis, a being put out of its place, distraction, astonishment, and 5. existanai, to displace, derange, (Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Ed., Merriam - Webster Online Dictionary, The American Heritage College Dictionary, Third Ed.) Whew! Why this giant vocabulary lesson, you ask? Because literally every definition of this word listed above is expressed with playwright Mike Leigh’s words and expertly executed through the talented cast and direction of this production.

Ecstasy takes place in a wintery Kilburn, London in 1979 at the meager one-room flat of Jean (Mary Monahan), a blue-collar gas station (or petrol station) attendant. Early on we meet a married man, Roy (Josh Marcantel), with whom she is having an affair. The bulk of the action takes place in the second act when Jean brings home three friends Dawn (Gina LeMoine), Mick (Brandon McCluskey), and long-lost Len (Stephen Heskett) as they share drunken thoughts and songs over beer and vodka into the wee hours of the night. It would appear that they ramble on about nothing but as is most often the case, profound thoughts and realizations are apt to come from nothing. The four reminisce over the lost days of Elvis, economic hardship and the fear of “Paki’s” taking over. Sound vaguely familiar? Though Leigh’s play is over a decade old and it takes place exactly two decades ago, times have come full circle and this story is perhaps more relevant now than it was then.

While the subject matter of Ecstasy is relevant, it is really more of a character-driven piece. Without strong, fully fleshed-out characters this play would flop. Leigh himself has said “I've been very careful about who I allow to do Ecstasy, which is very real and gritty and needs to be done just right.” I think he should be pleased with Laudonia’s version. This production is choreographed beautifully, gritty and naturally. Even the brief fight sequence in the beginning of the production left me wondering if it was an accident, until every moment of the fight was supported by the text afterward. (No fight choreographer is listed in the program.) Appreciation should be given to the dialect coach, Page Clements for a smooth and consistent sound. The actors showed a mastery for the regional London accent and were very easy to understand as well as fully plausible, never distracting.

The entire cast showed great levels of talent. Special mention should be made of actor Stephen Heskett as Len. Heskett displayed a depth of character so great that an entire play could be made off of just one look at him. Mary Monahan’s portrayal of Jean also holds a quiet fire, while Gina LeMoine and Brandon McCluskey lend solid support. The attention to detail paid to the simple, but spot-on set design (Damon Pelletier) and costume design (N/A) help to solidify the realism and grit of Ecstasy emphasizing the true “fly on the wall” feeling that Laudonia so expertly achieves.

Perhaps the words of the great poet John Keats, best sum it up, “What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?” Indeed, good sir, indeed. Ecstasy is an indulgence worth experiencing.

(Ecstasy plays at The Red Room at 85 E. 4th Street between 2nd and Bowery through January 25th, Thursday through Sunday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets ($18, $15 preview performances) are available by calling Smarttix at 212-868-4444 or online at

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