The full-length windows of the Patrick Moore Gallery looked out onto a drizzly, slate-gray sky on opening night of Talking Wales—and it couldn’t have been any more perfect. The sight lines in the makeshift theater space turned the wet evening into the backdrop for Utah Contemporary Theatre’s world-premiere production of four monologues all set in Wales; in the first, the character talks about the damp gloom outside as he glances out the window. On a practical level, it was like a production design special effect. But there was also something just a bit magical about the confluence of meteorology and art.
A tension between practicality and magic marks each segment in this marvelous quartet of single-character pieces by native Welshman Mike Dorrell, the dramaturg of Salt Lake Acting Company. “Afternoon in the Chapel” finds Irishman Francis (Kurt Proctor) commenting on his savvy business dealings. “The Pole” deals with American divorcÃ©e Florence (Artemis Preeshl) and her relationship with a Polish neighbor. Unemployed Welshman Willie (played by author Dorrell himself) describes his encounter with a street artist in “Catwoman.” And in “Castles,” Londoner Dorothy (Daisy Blake) explains her experience after moving to Wales with her father.
When it comes to dramatic monologues, there’s generally very little middle ground between illuminating and self-indulgent, but Dorrell’s pieces here remain safely in the former category. Each one pivots around a relationship between people from different worlds, both geographically and temperamentally. Francis and his Cockney artist girlfriend quarrel over his business practices; writer Florence and the all-business “Pole” take different approaches to their budding affair; hard-edged Willie becomes obsessed with the free-spirited British artist; and Dorothy’s dreams of medieval fantasy set up clashes with her Welsh boyfriend, Paul. Through these relationships, Dorrell manages to tell stories not just about the four fascinating central characters, but about his homeland. The tales cast it as a place of collision between its mythic past (as the home of the King Arthur legends) and pragmatic modernity. With laugh-out-loud humor and moments of heartbreak, Dorrell pulls all four characters into one piece.
The fine performances—directed variously by Proctor, Kirstie Gulick Rosenfield and director/dialect coach Adrianne Moore—do their part in exploring Talking Wales’ emotional and physical terrain. Proctor gets at the essence of Francis’ single-minded business sense, and maintains a note-perfect Irish accent throughout. Preeshl’s warm tones capture Florence’s poetic sensibility, and Blake finds the romantic folly that often turns young women into mothers. But the real revelation here is Dorrell himself, usually a behind-the-scenes guy whose stage time is electrifying. He delivers his lines in the hesitating, matter-of-fact manner of an inveterate pub crawler, while conveying the sense that Willie is still trying to make sense himself of an event that changed him. If his writing weren’t so powerful, I’d suggest that Dorrell give it all up and devote himself to reading other people’s words as well.
But fortunately for anyone who goes to see Talking Wales, his writing is powerful, the perfect text to take into a space where theatrical niceties like lighting and sound design aren’t readily available. The directors do a fine job with the limitations available to them—a single bench and a mural on the floor make up the entirety of the set—and wisely let the performers explore the rich text.
It also helps a production when nature itself offers so much cooperation. There’s no guarantee of rain on any given performance night, of course, nor is it really a necessity. If it comes, it will just be one more touch of magic in a production that already has plenty of magic in its soul.
TALKING WALES Utah Contemporary Theatre, Patrick Moore Gallery, 511 W. 200 South. Through May 7. 886-3019