Within the first five minutes after the house lights went down, it became clear that “Under Milk Wood” was going to be a unique experience. The lights stayed down as two omniscient narrators made their way onto the stage and introduced the audience to the Welsh town of Llareggub. The narrators spoke in a poetic, lyrical language, lulling the viewers with their descriptions of a still night.
After about 10 minutes of the narrators’ intersecting monologues, it seemed like the two were finally getting to the heart of the story. The lights came up, and the audience was given a glimpse into the guilt-fueled memories of the old Captain Cat, haunted by the ghostly apparitions of his dead sailors. However, this dream ended just as soon as it began, and we soon moved on to the next resident of Llareggub, who was dreaming of her secret love affair. From there, we were taken through over 20 different dreams, ranging from fantasies to Oedipal nightmares to strange scenes involving riding pigs and shooting giblets. Even though these vignettes of so many character’s psyches were a little confusing at first, it soon became apparent that “Under Milk Wood” was a story that wasn’t anchored by any particular character, but rather collectively by the town’s residents.
Once night ended, the concept of the entire play finally became clear: to paint a tableau of the entire town of Llareggub over the course of a single day. Observing the transition from morning to afternoon and finally ending once again with night, we watched an elaborate collection of 20 different characters as they went about the day’s intertwined activities. What’s odd about the play is that, because this is just a single day, none of the characters underwent any real story arc, but instead gave us a glimpse into their routines, relationships, and desires.
Almost every member of the talented cast played multiple roles. Solomon Billinkoff ’14, for example, switched between playing the postman, the butcher, and the crazy Lord Cut Glass. Fortunately, however, the cast members managed to bring unique personalities and mannerisms to each of their many roles, preventing the play from entering confusing territory.
Even though the actors masterfully executed the frequent character switches, a couple of recurring roles really stood out. Josef Mehling ’14 did a fantastic job as the old, blind Captain Cat, a character who spends half the play perched on his landing, observing the goings-on of the town. Mehling managed to bring out the likeable humility of this sad, broken character who often moved from the present to memories of his younger, happier, self. Matthew Krakaur ’14 also stood out as the insane Mr. Pugh, who fiendishly plots to poison his wife while maintaining the guise of a being subservient and agreeable husband.
Ultimately, the myriad characters succeeded as a theatrical device because of the range of personalities they exhibited, from the mischievous Nogood Boyo to the melancholy and grief-ridden Lily Smalls. All of the characters felt like real people, making the play feel like a truly candid glimpse into the lives and struggles of these ordinary townsfolk.
There was also a mystical element to the experience of this play, established by the constant presence of our two narrators. Daniel Froot ’16 and Christine Treuhold ’13 deserve full credit for filling immensely challenging roles, memorizing almost an entire book’s worth of monologues that provided constant, almost angelic commentary on the characters and their lives.
A play as ambitious as “Under Milk Wood” requires complex production work in order to surmount its narrative challenges. Fortunately, director Nicholas Orvis ’13 managed to find an original and practical way to fit an entire town in the space. Large amounts of dirt covered the floor of the ’92, and a few chairs and tables were used to establish the different locations. The set was also designed so that the audience surrounded the stage, which created a strong sense of intimacy between the viewers and the community on stage.
“We liked the grounded, part-of-the-world feel it gave the show,” Orvis wrote in an email to the Argus. “We thought it made the space a little more special, a little more sacred, than it would be with just the floor of the ’92 Theater.”
As for the rest of the production work, it was definitely a case of “less is more.” The lighting and sound design felt very naturalistic, making the audience feel present in the town. The few times that more stylized lighting was used, such as the blue spotlights illuminating Captain Cat’s reveries, signaled important glimpses into the character’s psychology.
A play without any real protagonist, or even any real story, can be a bit of a hard sell. Indeed, keeping the audience interested in something lacking a real story arc is a pitfall that far too many postmodern pieces succumb to. Admittedly, about an hour and a half in, the play’s style did threaten to wear out its welcome and become a little dull. But at that point, the afternoon turned into night, and our time with Llareggub was over. Looking back, “Under Milk Wood” was not just a play but a powerful and memorable experience.