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Opera House Arts’ production of the original work “Avalon” is a fun, imaginative, thought-provoking and magical play based on the Arthurian legends. That most likely is why its final shows this week are sold out.
Its impact is enhanced greatly by the setting where it is performed — outside amid the unique buildings and whimsical sculptures created by Peter Beerits and scattered about his Deer Isle property, home to Nervous Nellie’s.
Performed inside the Stonington Opera House, the company’s home base, it’s doubtful theatergoers would head home feeling like they had spent an enchanted evening in Camelot and Avalon as they did Friday night after sitting amid the flowers and trees. The audience moves from a field, where a festival is taking place, to a castle, to a chapel nestled in the woods and back again.
The script, written by Melody Bates, who portrays Morgana, draws most heavily from T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” published in 1958, and the 1983 novel “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley. It is from the latter that Bates draws her most compelling and best written scene — a confrontation between Merlin and Morgana in which they debate how and why the pagan ways are being consumed by Christianity.
This scene, the third in the play, is performed outside the chapel. A giant round table, a gift from Guinevere’s father to her husband Arthur, sits in front of the house of worship. Merlin (Matt Hurley) and Morgana (Bates) infuse this argument with intellect and emotion. Visually, it is the most surprising and satisfying scene in “Avalon.”
The final two scenes in the production seem rushed compared with the story arc that builds to seeing the round table followed by intermission. There is carnage and death, yet forgiveness and hope. The final act tries too hard to wrap up all the loose ends, but this is a work in progress, and Bates can continue working to untidy her finale a bit.
“Avalon” is directed by three women, Joan Jubett, Laura Butler Rivera and April Sweeney. How and why they collaborated is not explained in the program. Two directors is not that unusual, but three is rare. An explanation in the program of their shared vision for the production and how they collaborated would have been helpful, as would information about how and why the decision was made to use three directors.
As for the acting, Bates and Hurley own this production. While “Avalon” could be more of an ensemble piece, it is their performances that hover over the audience as they exit Nervous Nellie’s.
As the playwright, no one understands Morgana, the Lady of the Lake, as Bates does. She portrays the woman called a sorceress in some versions of the Arthur stories and a goddess in others as both. Bates gives Morgana the kind of depth few storytellers ever have, and it is a fascinating portrayal.
Hurley is delightful as the wizard Merlin, albeit a much younger version than the one from the 1963 Walt Disney film “The Sword in the Stone.” In this actor’s hands, Merlin is playful, mischievous, optimistic, and committed to helping and challenging Arthur and his knights. It is in the scenes with Morgana that Merlin becomes a philosopher and pleasantly surprises the audience by showing another side of the wizard.
The Arthur (Jonathan West), Guinevere (Maria Jung) and Lancelot (Tristan J. Schuler) love triangle builds to a frantic climax that seems a bit out of place with the rest of the play’s tone. All three actors give fine performances despite that.
West is especially good at portraying the boy Arthur, who does not know he is destined to be a king. His energy and joy at simply being a boy are wonderful to watch. That is a sharp contrast to the disillusioned, aging king in the last act, which is an equally compelling performance.
This Guinevere is written more as a symbol than as a character. Jung works hard to give depth to the part, and for the most part, succeeds. But Guinevere’s rejection of the pagan ways and her embrace of Christianity seems forced, as if she is to represent something other than a barren woman in love with two men.
And then there is Mordred (Shawn Fagan), Arthur’s illegitimate son and usurper of the throne. Fagan goes full out evil in the role. He is snarky and sarcastic, and owes more to the villain Snidely Whiplash of the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” television show than the many ways Mordred has been written over the centuries. But it works and is one of the reasons theatergoers want the story to end differently than they know it must. Fagan is just delightfully dastardly.
The work by the technical crew, made up of Benton Lane, Rocky Love, Vincent Olivieri, Jennifer Paar and Danny Taylor, truly complements the setting and adds to the wonder of “Avalon.”
Opera House Arts is known for taking the performing arts outside into unusual places, including a quarry and a saltwater farm. It would be hard to top last year’s production of “The Tempest,” performed in five different locations at the Ames Farm in Stonington, overlooking the sea. “Avalon” at Nervous Nellie’s comes close. It is hard to imagine there could be a more perfect setting for this addition to Arthurian lore than the personal playground Beerits has built over the years.