Theater

Review: Stellar casting in intriguing 'Any Other Name' at Crystal Lake Raue Center

To what lengths would you go if you were the proverbial starving artist? What if you also had a spouse depending on you? Would you compromise your morals, lie or commit a crime?

That’s the predicament faced by British critic and aspiring poet Edward Ballard (Greg Carere) in “Any Other Name,” an award-winning play by George Brant that’s receiving its regional premiere in a Williams Street Repertory production at the Raue Center for the Arts in Crystal Lake. And the suspense of this wry thriller is in how those questions will be answered by Edward and his American wife, Margaret (Michele Vazquez).

Director Brad Raimondo’s perfectly cast play has only two other characters: acclaimed poet John Clark (James Knight), who’s been in a dungeon-like Victorian England asylum for years, committed there by his since deceased wife; and publisher Andrew Maddock (Frank Gaughan), a cagey and cautious businessman whose company used to print Clark’s poems, but who never actually met Clark in his pre-insanity days.

As the play begins, Ballard has tracked down Clark, a poet whose first book did very well, but whose second book of verse was less appreciated by the critics and readers. Clark now believes himself to be William Shakespeare. Visiting Clark in what is the equivalent of a prison cell, Ballard gets him talking about Clark’s poetry and where a rumored third book of poems – as good as or better than the first – might be. Once Ballard worms his way into the good graces of “Shakespeare,” who seems to recall having met “Clark” at one point, he gets the information about where the poems are hidden, and we’re off and running with a well-crafted plot, the twists of which I will not reveal.

Carere, an actor with New York credits who’s making his WSR debut, delivers a performance in which all of his reactions – from love to compassion to resignation to envy – feel genuine. Appearing in every scene in this two-act play, Ballard is a quasi-villain whose motivations and actions lead the audience to detest what he’s doing, while also pitying him for both the circumstances in which he finds himself and the limited options to survival.

Vazquez, a WSR member who’s worked a lot with new plays (e.g., the Raue’s LAB Series), plays a character who was wooed by Ballard’s poems years ago; as Margaret says, they were “intoxicating – I was drunk on them.” That was then. Now, she’s trying her best to be encouraging to Ballard as he promises her, “I shall give you the poet you deserve.” Vazquez’s transformation of Margaret from a supportive, if worried, wife into something else is reason alone to see “Any Other Name.”

Knight, who’s had major roles in WSR’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Death of a Salesman” in recent years, truly embodies Clark. That’s the case from his first appearance on stage, writing frantically on the floor of his horrible cell dressed in rags, to his palpable hunger for simple things like bread and paper, to his inability to realize who he really is. All of us in the audience – seated on stage mere feet away – sympathize with the depths to which this “Peasant Poet” has fallen.

Last, but by no means least, Gaughan, an original WSR member making his 19th appearance on the Raue stage, earns the applause his scenes as Maddock brought on opening night. Maddock is a businessman who knows a lot about how to make money and how to motivate others to do what he suggests, no matter how unsavory those actions may be. After his first appearance, the audience was ready and eager to smile whenever Gaughan was in a scene.

Intrigued? An advisory if you’re going to the show: there’s no late seating for this production because of the configuration of the stage, so make sure you arrive early.

My suggestion: "Any Other Name" should have your name at Will Call. It’s a production that merges a fascinating script with four outstanding actors, and the result is memorable theater.

• Paul Lockwood is past president of TownSquare Players (TSP) and an occasional community theater actor, appearing in more 30 plays, musicals and revues since he and his wife moved to Woodstock in 2001. Recent shows include “A Christmas Carol” (2014, 2016), “Into the Woods” and “The Drowsy Chaperone,” all at the Woodstock Opera House, where he’ll be in “9 to 5: The Musical,” opening March 31. He’s also performed in dramatic readings at Le Petit Marché (Get LIT[erary]) and at the Raue Center for the Arts (Williams St. Repertory LAB Series).

“ANY OTHER NAME”

WHEN: March 17 through April 2

WHERE: Raue Center for the Arts, 26 N. Williams St., Crystal Lake.

COST and INFO: Schedule: 8 p.m. March 24-25, 31 and April 1; 3 p.m. March 25-26 and April 2. Tickets: $32.50 to $38.50. Tickets and information: 815-356-9212 or https://rauecenter.ticketforce.com.

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