REVIEWS of The Mound Builders


Digging In the Dirt

by  James Yeara on May 16, 2012 

Director John Sowle’s set design at Stageworks/Hudson makes it easy to see whyThe Mound Builders was the late Lanford Wilson’s favorite play. While the Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley’s Folly or Hot L Baltimore or Burn This might be produced more often, this 1975 Obie Award-winning play is smartly structured, complex, and intriguingly subtle. Centered on the doings at an archeological dig in Blue Shoals, Ill., The Mound Builders is brilliantly served by Sowle’s erosion cloth panels for the summer rental home and the rear screen projections of the Native American burial mounds. The set material is the ideal symbol for a play about digging ever deeper into the dirt, and the secrets the past reluctantly yields.

The open, irregular weave of the beige erosion cloth languidly framed for the walls creates both warmth when lit from the front of the house, and ominous shadows when lighted from above. The Mound Builders shifts similarly back and forth from February 1975 in chief archeologist August Howe’s (Steven Patterson) Urbana, Ill., study, crammed into a sliver of downstage right, to the events of the previous summer at Howe’s rented house adjacent to the dig site. The upstage projections, unique in the region’s theaters, are always smartly used at Stageworks/Hudson; here, there is the eerie picture of two skeletons buried in the white earth, one skull turned in profile to the other skeleton, whose skull is also turned away as if in rejection.

This startling image begins and ends Kaliyuna Arts’ production, bookending more prosaic projections that Howe periodically narrates. These brief scenes in his study create tension with the longer scenes centered on the archeological study into the surprising life of the pre-Columbian Mississippians.

In and out of the house go Howe and his onstage dig team: wife Cynthia (Molly Parker-Myers), assistant Dan (Dan Fenaughty) and his newlywed wife Jean (Lauren Murphy), and Chad Jasker (Jack Kesy), oily hanger-on and the son of the farm owner where the house and dig are located. With each return to the study, Howe adds a little more to his tape-recorded account of the events of the previous summer, slipping in ominous little side notes—“the disaster of last summer,” “my ex-wife”—to the mostly innocuous photos of the house, the lake, the people, and the mound. These hindsight comments parallel the summer-house scenes as Howe and Dan dig deeper into the mound; the mound slowly yields up its story just as the characters reveal their secrets and regrets.

When Howe’s desiccated, dissipated novelist sister D.K. (Louise Pillai) literally is carried in a blanket, mummy-like, into the summer house, both mound and characters soon give up the mother lode, and the reverberations intimate tragedy both in the distant past and the ambiguous present, in Wilson’s rich and insightful writing.

Phil Elman’s sound design aids Sowle’s staging perfectly, giving the scenes in the summer house the echoes of drums, chanting, and thunder; car tires on gravel; cries that fade with an indie horror film piano accompaniment; and the study scenes the hiss of tape recording and the click of the slide projector, like bullets rotating in the chamber. It’s a smart touch in well-staged production of a play full of depth and multiplicity.


daily gazette

Stageworks shines in 'Mound Builders'

Ensemble's brilliant dialogue effective

By Paul Lamar
Sunday, May 13, 2012

HUDSON — An online article mentions a WW II plane being discovered in the Sahara. We've just come off the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic, a national preoccupation. And folks in Watervliet wrangle about what to do with the abandoned St. Patrick's Church: preserve or dismantle.

Lanford Wilson's "The Mound Builders," a challenging play now in an excellent production at Stageworks/Hudson, explores the fascination of the quick with the dead, as a team of archaeologists races to excavate a Midwest site of burial mounds before the land is flooded for recreational use and a highway is laid down.

The play opens in 1975 with Professor August Howe (Steven Patterson) dictating notes about a 1974 dig into a tape recorder for his secretary to transcribe, notes accompanied (for the audience's benefit) by slides of the dig projected on the rear wall. In essence he's creating his own artifacts, a human record only a little more sophisticated than the copper mask and bone tool the team uncovered. As we see during the course of the evening, there will always be questions about "what really happened" anyplace, anytime, the nooks and crannies of human interaction being what they are.

The play takes place chiefly in a farmhouse near the Illinois dig. Howe's companions include his ex-wife, Cynthia (Molly Parker-Myers); his assistant, Dan (Dan Fenaughty) and Dan's pregnant wife, Jean (Lauren Murphy); landowner Chad (Jack Kesy); and Howe's alcoholic sister, Delia (Louise Pillai), a noted author. Act I lays out most of the tensions among this crowd: Chad's flirtations with Jean, Howe's struggles with Cynthia and Delia, Dan's preoccupation with the excavation, and the buddy-buddy relationship between Chad and Dan.

Following Wilson's dialogue is stimulating because it's often not linear. There are plenty of overlaps, and sometimes a response by one character merely glances off a previous comment. Mini arias emerge, letting us into the heart of the characters as they excavate their own pasts.

For me these strategies, which characterize Act I and half of Act II, work, and I found myself disappointed in a sudden—and conventional—plot twist midway through Act II, an explosion that doesn't feel completely earned. It "satisfies," I suppose, because something large happens, but I was interested enough in the characters not to need such climax, and I would have liked more unearthing, say, of the relationship between Delia and August.

The production, under John Sowle's direction, is fast-paced and physical, and the set he has designed is realistic and theatrically clever. Kudos, as well, to Phil Elman's rich sound palette. The ensemble work is tight. Patterson is credible as a man too busy with the past to pay much attention to the present. Parker-Myers plays a woman in the shadows on the lookout for an attentive man—or at least the anodyne of alcohol. Murphy's Jean is an OB-GYN whose career is interrupted by pregnancy, but the prospect of a baby seems fraught with uncertainty. Nice work by both actresses.

Showier roles are beautifully filled by Kesy, pushy and sexy and shrewd as the ordinary Joe with big dreams. Fenaughty's Dan makes Dan a poet, sober or drunk or stoned, searching for meaning just as passionately as Chad searches for things. And Pillai's Delia, lying on the couch like an oracle consulted by younger folks whose lives lie before them, is achingly fragile and tough. I particularly liked a moment with the three women, when Delia says, "We're all freaks—all us bright sisters." Indeed, that one line is a sharp trowel that digs cleanly beneath the surface of cultural gender roles.

Not an easy play, then, but one illuminated by the fine work in Hudson.


times union
by Michael Eck

HUDSON – The key players in Kaliyuga Arts — actor Steven Patterson and director John Sowle — have been wanting to stage Lanford Wilson's 1975 play "The Mound Builders" since the company's inception over 25 years ago. Given the troupe's current production, now on the boards at Stageworks, it's easy to see why. Wilson's script is talky as all get out, but it's fascinating, too.

Wilson seems to write in layers, with each scene bolstering, then brushing away the next. It's an appropriate tack for a show that centers on archaeology. The mound builders of the title are long gone tribes of Native Americans, who left behind not only their bones and potsherds, but also a hint of the chaos that would come centuries later.

When Professor August Howe (Patterson) is digging in search of a God King, for example, is he really searching for himself? And when the scientists clash with the landowners is simply an echo of the colonials crushing the Indians?

Wilson is actually careful not to bog the script down with too much philosophy, and he wisely banks what he does offer with plenty of sensuality, too. There is an animal fierceness, for example, in Chad Jasker (Jack Kesy). He's the largest landholder's scion and he stakes his own claim for Howe's feline wife, Cynthia (Molly Parker-Myers) while trying to stake another on Jean Loggins (Lauren Murphy). The latter is the pregnant wife of Dan Loggins (Dan Fenaughty), who does the scientific grunt work while Howe cogitates. Howe, actually, is the least important character in the play. His narration, looking back on the events, is a dull echo compared to the rest of the action. Patterson enumerates, but he doesn't participate (except in a few battles with his sister, author D.K. Eriksen (Louise Pillai).

But there is much life in the other roles. Fenaughty is fantastic as Loggins, playing him as part nerd and part hunk. Kesy, as his feral foil, is just as fine. Wilson offers so many combinations of players that each gets to bounce off each other at least once, with Parker-Myers slinking around in contrast to Pillai's couch-ridden Sphinx. Sowle does strong work with suggesting impending doom.

The play's repeated motifs (pushed along by Phil Elman's constantly-thrumming sound design) aren't as ominous as Eugene O'Neill's beating drum in "The Emperor Jones, but they are effective. And Sowle's stage design is remarkable, becoming another character in the play.

Sowle and Patterson have reason to be proud of their local bow, and we'll hope to see more from Kaliyuga Arts.

Michael Eck is a freelance writer from Albany and a frequent contributor to the Times Union.


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