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The Great God Pan: A Modern Purging

  • Taylor Diffenderfer (Paige) and Carly Van Liere (Joelle) in The Great God Pan

  • Nick Sholley (Frank) in The Great God Pan

By: Janet and Lanny Lowery
October 19, 2018

The Greeks used tragedy, according to Aristotle, to clean the heart through pity and terror.  Nobility in suffering will purge people of their trivial worries and anxieties.  Need this kind of cleansing?  See The Great God Pan at the Cinnabar Theater, one of its finest dramatic productions, in Petaluma through October 28th.

Tension.  Suspense.  Intensity.  The play shows interaction of identity, psychology, and pathology.  The story sustains a quiet and necessarily slow building of conflicts through ten scenes of revelations shared by the seven characters.  Eighty minutes of personal problems shown, from the past as well as from the present, leave the theater nearly airless.

Bright lights at the opening of the eleventh scene create the sense that all will be finally told.  However, the silent acting, one of the most difficult tasks for any actor,  (what the actor without the lines must do) tells the story.  This is a play about failed communication between families and loved ones.  Ironically, the main character, Jamie, played by Aaron Wilton, is a thirty something journalist who cannot communicate in his personal life.

The play begins with eerie music playing while two friends from childhood, who have not seen each other for twenty-five years, meet for coffee.  Jamie’s boyhood friend, Frank, played by Nick Sholley, has recently begun to deal with an issue from the past.

The dialogue moves necessarily slowly at first.  Jamie does the silent reacting as the character background for both men is built.  Jamie exhibits a mysterious nervousness as Frank tells his story.  

Lights lower, music plays, and the scene shifts.  This technical device works well through all of the scene changes.  Characters effectively change the setting, especially with a revolving triangle.

Jamie’s girlfriend Paige, played by Taylor Diffenderfer, discusses a personal problem with him.  Then the discussion shifts to Jamie’s meeting with Frank.  Jamie carefully reports to Paige, a psychological therapist what the two men discussed.

 Jamie’s mother, Cathy, played by Susan Gundunas appears to bring a sense of normalcy to the scene.  But she appears to be “bizarrely unsympathetic” which suggests a few things about Jamie’s personal growth as a child.  Gundunas subtly plays the good mother on the surface, yet she hints at being controlling and disinterested.

Paige’s client, Joelle, played by Carly Van Liere, appears to have nothing to do with the main plot, and yet she will appear in another scene.  She allows us to see how Paige operates as a communicator in her job as a therapist, adding some light to her relationship with Jamie.  This will give credibility to some of her later choices.

Jamie’s father, Doug, (Richard Pallaziol) shows more about the parents’ work ethic and how Jamie learned about communication within a family.  Pallaziol handles the role of the concerned parent, who, like the mother, displays only a smooth and calm surface that belies troubled waters, disturbed and turgid depths.

 Polly (Kate Brickley), the former babysitter of Frank and Jamie, brings in the notion of spring, of Pan, of beauty and destruction.  She recalls an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem, “A Musical Instrument,” which she had recited to the boys.  Pan is described as a damaging god, and no wonder, considering that he is half beast and laughs at the destruction of beauty.  We hear words from the last stanza of the poem: “The true gods sigh for the cost and pain, /For the reed which grows nevermore again/As a reed with the reeds in the river.”  For characters in this play, this mourns the loss of innocence and the beauty of childhood.

The revelations build during the last five scenes.  Expectations soar.  The lights are bright in the final scene as Frank emerges with more revelations.  Jamie has more silent acting, responding to Frank’s disclosures.  Then Frank’s throwaway line, “How’s Paige?”  strikes another and surprising response.  All of this sets up for the final silent moment, one that has to be seen at the Cinnabar.

A description of this production falls short of the audience’s experience.  Taylor Korobow, the director, made many creative and effective choices.  One was having the offstage actors on stage, standing or sitting silently, as though they were in the subconscious depths of the characters performing.  In one scene, Cathy, Jamie’s mother, looks dead on at him without moving.  Read “Mother has a strong impact on the adult Jamie.”  Another noteworthy choice was the sounds, the eerie music that provided the transitions from one scene to the next created by the sound designer, Kristoffer Barrera.  Jon Tracy, the scene and lighting designer, employed light and scenery to reflect the tensions of the moments.

Edgar Allan Poe, defining the short story, held that the story must be read in one sitting to have “the immense force derivable of totality.”  This play has just that because there is no intermission, just eighty-five minutes of immense force.  The seven actors, all highly experienced, all possessing brilliant resumes, sustain the tension, propel the force of dark secrets, hold the air in the theater until one feels stifled by the psychological miasma.  

The Great God Pan is best to be performed by a small theater group in a small theater.  Amy Herzog, the playwright, conceivably did not know that she wrote something that was perfect for the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma.  Community theater shows best for the community with fine actors, an intelligent director, and a creative support staff.  The intensity of this eighty-five minute experience follows one out of the theater and into the night.  And back to where we started:  as Aristotle prescribed, this tragedy cleansing purges us of our petty concerns as it shows the characters’ nobility through suffering.