Once again, the Rogue Theatre has invented a theater presentation adapted from a work of fiction. Choosing this way to reinvent the source material is always tricky, and Rogue's marriage to the concept has resulted in work of varying quality, or at least varying success. Quality of conception and execution is rarely a problem at Rogue.
This time director Cynthia Meier has adapted an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, "The Jelly-Bean," a part of the collection from 1922 called Tales of the Jazz Age, which is the title of the current Rogue work.
This presentation is a co-production with Artifact Dance Project, and it's the first time Rogue has worked in this kind of collaboration. The story seems a natural choice for the integration of choreography because the main event of the tale involves a social dance. But choreographer Ashley Bowman's dancers are not merely used in that scene; they are choreographed within and throughout the entire show.
What results is pleasing, but not wholly high-flying, entertainment.
Jelly-bean is a term applied to "idling" men; those that have little personality and even littler ambition. Here, Jim Powell (Matt Bowdren) is the jelly-bean who lives in a room above a mechanic's garage where he sometimes helps repair cars. He has no family; he doesn't belong. He seems unaware of his plight, having little and wanting nothing more. He does have a unique skill, though: he shoots craps with great success. He's even been told he can't throw them from his hand. He now must use a cup to dispense the dice in an effort to suppress his idiot savant-like skill.
A flicker of awareness of his lack of ambition and imagination is ignited by an encounter with a woman at the dance. Nancy's (Claire Hancock) unawareness that her sense of belonging to the cultured class of England is demonstrated in her clumsy remarks to Jelly-Bean, who hears them as uttered from one much better than he—a woman who, not only is able to see beyond her small-town self, but dreams of actually claiming that self. Something in Jelly-Bean awakens as he feels he might too be somebody, might connect with some family, might seek a consistent source of work. But when he learns of the events that transpired after he left the dance, his sights on a different life easily dim.
Many of stories in this Fitzgerald collection had been published in magazines, but he was struggling to find funds to continue to write, and that prompted him to publish the collection. He had published his first novel, This Side of Paradise, and another collection of stories, called Flappers and Philosophy, before Tales of the Jazz Age in 1922. Many scholars see these two collections as the passage that led Fitzgerald to be able to access the language and depth of The Great Gatsby.
The story reads well enough, but it doesn't immediately suggest a successful piece of theater. For one thing, the character of Jelly-Bean presents a challenge. He does not inspire our attachment to him, nor does he inspire a repulsion. Blah-ness in a title character in a theater setting doesn't make for a dependably good—or moving—theatrical story. Bowdren does well to give us this character, but what sympathy we have for him doesn't go very far. In a piece of theater, this sympathy is essential in connecting the audience with all that transpires.
Dance, of course, is more abstract, and here it is conceived and delivered well by dancers Bo Brinton, Daniel Diaz, Holly Griffith, Allie Knuth, Logan Moon Penisten and Lauren Renteria. The musical component of storytelling is always the most immediate and accessible thing we respond to, and here is no different. Mary Turcotte is musical director and composer, and she and Derek Granger perform beautifully, blending their contributions to the multi-disciplined performance well.
So here we need to ask if this embodiment serves or even enhances Fitzgerald's literary statement from which everything else spins? It certainly changes it, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. That happens often in adaptation; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. In addition, an adaptation in the manner done here leaves us with a lot of narration, which Christopher Johnson delivers as part of his character. He brings us Fitzgerald's words, but the delivery violates a bit too much the dictum that theater should show, not tell. It results in a distance between audience and action.
But perhaps it's because we don't really connect with Jelly-Bean that the result of this type of storytelling is unsatisfying. It's pleasing, but not powerful. For some, that may be enough for a hot summer evening. For others, though, not so much.