Even for those of us who see a lot of theatre, one-actor shows tend to be few and far between. There are many challenges and it takes a great amount of skill and nuance to do it right. There's one in town which is absolutely worth seeing, and that's Adam Rapp's Nocturne, currently being offered by Burning Coal Theatre Company in collaboration with Mortall Coile Theatre Company.
One-actor shows are such a specific kind of challenge - how does one actor keep up the momentum? How does one actor keep the show lively and engaging? How does one actor memorize over an hour and a half of text? I certainly don't know the answers to any of those questions, but luckily actor Jesse R. Gephart and director Dana Marks have got it all figured out.
Nocturne features an unnamed narrator telling about his life, starting from the moment that his younger sister died tragically. Playwright Rapp elaborates skillfully on topics from word choice to music; he makes it seem as though there are many people filling the stage, and not just the one actor. The other characters truly come alive through his descriptions to the point that the audience feels like they know those unseen characters just as well as they know the narrator. The story goes into detail about the narrator's journey away from his hometown and into his new life in New York City, and then one solitary visit back to the Midwest. He talks about work, love, grief, and books. In fact, mostly books. The inclusion of so many great works of literature was a real point of connection between the playwright (and actor, by extension) and the audience. Having read some of the same books as the character, the audience can get an insight into his mind. Don't worry, he mentions enough books that you've probably read at least one. Those little moments created an accessible narrator through the opportunity for deep personal connection (for this writer, it was the mention of a personal favorite, Giovanni's Room, that created a spark).
Gephart would, occasionally, sit in the same spot for a length of time, yet somehow, he manages to speak in such an engaging way that keeps the pace moving along quite nicely. This show is a testament to his acting ability, which he has in great quantity. He is wonderfully directed, and there's a sense in the air that the actor and director are a great partnership and work well together. Gephart is able to share moments that are funny and moments that are sad in a way that is real and true-to-life. His performance itself makes the night of theater worthwhile.
The set, designed by Jon Haas and Dana Marks, is well-conceived. The text talks about how the narrator's apartment is filled with books, and the set is created out of thousands of books - book made into oversized chairs, books in piles on the floor, even a book piano and bench. It creates a space which, without being particularly literal, gives Gephart a real world to inhabit. The other elements, such as lighting and music are nice - with subtlety, these elements fade into the performance.
Nocturne is part of Burning Coal's "Wait 'Til You See This!" series and runs through March 24, and is presented in Burning Coal's Murphey School Auditorium. For tickets and more information, visit www.burningcoal.org.