A Rarely Done Productions premiere at Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St., Werewolf’s narrative follows two tracks, the first in the present, really the middle of this decade, and the second in the early 1970s, when transistor radios were all the rage and women wore polyester without shame. A trim fashionable lawyer from the school board, Holly Carpinski Corman (newcomer Peggy Droz), meets with Mr. Alessandro (Tom Minion), a veteran of 36 years at the blackboard. Alessandro’s recent erratic behavior, including his claims that he is indeed a werewolf, has upset the powers-that-be, and they would like him to leave, overriding contracts as needed. With some prompting Alessandro remembers that Holly had once been his student, writing an outstanding paper on S.T. Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” a poem of opium-inspired unreality.
While the contemporary Alessandro at stage left recounts his stories, recorded by Holly on her Apple laptop, we are transported back to 1970 at stage center. A younger, dark-haired Alessandro (Mark Austin) speaks with the younger Holly (Fiona Cunningham) about Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a poem about guilt and obsession. More importantly, the young Alessandro encounters the troubled student, the first to call himself a werewolf, who has plagued the teacher’s imagination all these many years, Calvin Blaine (Keegan Lounsberry).
Director Judith Harris and actor Lounsberry have done a splendid job of conjuring up the tormented romantic hero in Calvin. With his light blue eyes and long, dark, ringleted tresses, he’s the very kind of character the younger Alessandro and Holly have been talking about. Calvin (perhaps not an allusion to religious reformer Jean Calvin) accuses himself of the foulest, unspeakable deeds.
Alessandro never meant to pry, but the assignment to write a memoir led Calvin to speak of his deepest feelings. As a fellow mortal as well as teacher, Alessandro felt he should speak of more than punctuation and sentence structure. When news of this dialogue reaches home, Calvin’s father, Harris Blaine (Brendan Cole), comes roaring back, blasting Alessandro’s meddling. Only his details of family history are at variance with Calvin’s. More revealing is Calvin’s stepmother Myra (Karis Wiggins) whose details differ from both Calvin’s and his father’s. An insidious familiarity, like stroking Alessandro’s tie as she speaks, implies hers is the one to remember.
Despite repeated hints of something extraordinary, such as allusions to the children’s book Goodnight, Moon, the repressed events, while shocking, are not supernatural. The darker stories of Joyce Carol Oates cover some of the same ground. The moral weight of the secret presses down on Calvin, crushing him, redounding to Alessandro.
The second act moves on to another student with even greater guilt, but feels written at a different time. Now the elder Alessandro is stage center with the younger commenting at the side to Holly and her laptop. The playwright’s flippant humor is retained. For instance, when Alessandro thinks he has seen a character come back from the dead, he jibes: “You can’t scare me. I teach Shakespeare, and I know all about ghosts.” But the rhythms are different, with much longer speeches calling for bravura delivery from two players especially, Peggy Droz’s Holly and the new student, Tequan Adkins (Jeffrey Lonnie Lyndon Owens).
Along with Tequan’s urban cadences, he speaks an assertive street language with “ain’ts” and double negatives, signaling a steep drop down the social scale from the Blaines. Apparently motherless but the 16-year-old father of a year-old infant, Tequan plunges to depths of dysfunction unimagined in the first act. His secret, spoken in the coarsest terms, reaches for horrors found only in mythology. Yet Tequan, like Calvin, also becomes a werewolf.
Playwright Len Fonte, a sometime Syracuse New Times drama critic, was also a much admired-teacher at Nottingham High School, with a career quite different from Alessandro’s. City Hall declared a day of commemoration when he retired recently. Despite some teasing in actors’ program bios that everything is happening at Nottingham, Fonte has taken pains to remove all local references, except for comparing a dark basement to Howe Caverns and providing details of New York education law. Instead of fretting whether a specific high school is implied, we can gain more from Fonte’s unstated thesis that local teachers, despite tenure and never having to present a bill for services, are more thoroughly thrust into the real world than most of us.
Fonte has long been associated with Armory Square Playhouse, the aspiring playwrights’ group founded by David Feldman and now headed by Donna Stuccio, where Werewolf was presented and discussed. The result is a complex, unconventional product, with dozens of sparkling lines, not quoted here, and deep internal resonance. More importantly, the lightning shifts in tone keep an audience guessing, and the well-crafted speeches allow skilled performers to strut their stuff, starting with Peggy Droz as Holly, and Karis Wiggins as the stepmother. Tom Minion retains his flair, especially when coupled with director Harris, for madcap older men. Brendan Cole somehow wins laurels for an otherwise unrewarding bully. Keegan Lounsberry’s Calvin grabs you by the throat.
Dan Tursi’s Rarely Done company enjoys a reputation for taking risks. Fonte is already outdrawing big-name playwrights like Neil LaBute. Werewolf is one of the major events of the season. This production runs through Oct. 24. See Times Table for information.
This production runs through Oct. 24. See Times Table for information.