The Tonic of Wilderness

Staging an adaptation of Deliverance in the round with no props or set decoration for a black box theater audience seems more like the result of a lost dare than a deliberate creative undertaking. Four urban adventurers set out for a weekend of canoeing down a river before the river valley is flooded by a soon-to-be-built dam. Ed (Nick Paglino) and Bobby (Jarrod Zayas) stop along the river for a beer and are ambushed by a pair of deviant hill folk. Ed is bound and Bobby is raped before their alpha male companion Lewis (Gregory Konow) strikes down the rapist with an arrow. Despite acting in self defense, the group decides to conceal the body and flee, only to be hunted down by the surviving assailant.

Director Joe Tantalo, a man with a dozen other literary adaptations to his name, keeps the action wreathed in haze and, for at least a little while, keeps it interesting. All the actors do well. Mr. Konow and Bryce Hodgson doing triple duty as a variety of menacing hillbillies are especially good. Nevertheless, no one involved seems up to the task of transporting the audience. The lighting and sound designer struggle valiantly to undertake abrupt mood and location shifts but they can’t manage the trick every time, particularly as the play steadily becomes heavier and heavier with narration. While the goal of the production may have been to bring the poetry of James Dickey’s language to the stage, resorting to monologues to convey the suspense of men hunting each other in the wilderness doesn’t do much to conjure either suspense or wilderness.

At its best moments, James Dickey’s Deliverance conquers the absurdity of its physical limitations and is capable of evoking something as seemingly difficult as a violent underwater struggle for air. At its worst, an audience member may find himself staring at the back of an actor’s head for minutes at a time while he rhapsodizes about surviving in a woodland expanse difficult to project into a space seven paces long.

Deliverance runs through November 9th at 59E59 Theaters.  59 E. 59th Street  New York, NY.

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Ben Botwick

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