Playwright: Dylan Thomas . At: Caffeine Theatre at the Storefront Theatre, 66 E. Randolph . Phone: 312-742-8497; $20-$16. Runs through: Sept. 27
Dylan Thomas penned some of the most treacherous and gorgeous poetry this side of Shakespeare. Get his "Under Milk Wood" right, and you've got lavish, hypnotic sublimity. Get it wrong and you've got something that'll give your audience wholly inappropriate giggles and leave it wondering why the Welsh poet is revered the world over. Lines like "I will lie by your side like the Sunday roast" require the inflection of the gifted. Moreover, Thomas's winding, labyrinthine sentences are James Joyce-ian in their complexity and wordplay. Actors who attempt them without a clear, brilliant view of the lush, dripping topography are doomed to disservice.
In Caffeine Theatre's staging of Dylan's "poem for voices," an ensemble worthy of the words illuminates the diverse and richly memorable ghosts of a small Welsh town. From the drowned Captain Cat pining fathoms under brine for his rosy Rosie Probert, to the impossibly lovely 17-year-old Mae Rose Cottage luxuriating in clover and eagerly "waiting for the worst to happen," to the pinched, scoured cleanliness of the Widow Ogmore-Pritchard as she terrorizes her beleaguered late husbands, Caffeine makes Under Milk Wood sing.
Director Paul S. Holmquist's ensemble takes a stanza or two to find the rhythmand to draw the audience into Dylan's world. There's a shade of self-conscious artifice to the first moments of the piece, an air of Dylan-worship in the air that imbues the words with precious ( and not in the good sense of the word ) reverence. But by the time Dan Granata launches into the wild and whimsical description of the scratch and babble in Mrs. Organ Morgan's general store, the amazingly vivid world of Under Milk Wood's small seaside town is shining through.
Through physical transformations that verge on shapeshifting ( watch for the scene wherein all morph into a herd of slow, stupid cows ) and vocal nuances that create a crowd of indelible characters, the ensemble brings to life a town as crowded and bustling as a bee hive. Holmquist has the group making exquisite use of shape and tempo, creating both an organic whole of a village and a population of memorable individuals. Watch, for example, Kaitlin Byrd move from the cold, compulsively hygienic Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard into the skin of comfy, simple Mrs. Dai Bread One. Also wonderful is Kate Nawrocki as the sad, sensual Rosie Probert, a vixen and an otherworld wraith who in death, no longer recalls the lovers of her life. Then there's the impish Charles Filipov as a Nogood Boyo, a scamp who wants to be good, "but nobody'll let me." And the luminous Elise Kauzlaric, invaluable as the town snoop and as a happily solitary woman-in-love who prefers the romance of love letters to the complex fuss of a flesh-and-blood lover.
Ian Zywica's planks-and-rope set emphasizes the all-important, sea-centric sensibility of the piece down to its ghostly, drowned foundations.