by Susanna Baird
Attending a performance in a black-box style space such as Salem Theatre Company's new location at Shetland Park, audience members sit right along the edges of the action. In STC's current piece, the psychological thriller "Entangled," which runs through October 1, director and set designer Nate Bertone takes the concept a step further, inviting the audience onto the set to explore before the play begins.
Walking across the theatre's lovely, aged, wooden floorboards from the set's dining room, where a bottle of champagne sits chilling, into the living room with its ship captain lamp and comfortable couch, then to the kitchen where the fridge bears souvenirs from New England tourist spots, the audience starts guessing at the play's narrative before the play even begins. The kitchen magnets and the Maine license plate on the mantelpiece … New England, for sure. Sailboat on the headboard in the bedroom, seashells in a jar on the bookshelf … must be near the water. Vintage board games scattered everywhere … summer vacation home? But there's snow by the door, has to be winter. And why the champagne?
By the time the lights go down, the audience is already engaged. By the time the actors walk on, they are positioned not only to watch, but also to question, to try to piece together the details gathered from the set with those delivered by three excellent interpretations of playwright Leah Miles' well-constructed characters. "Entangled" centers on newlyweds Ian and Hillary, played by actors John Manning and Caroline Keeler in their STC debuts. Ian and Hillary have retreated to Maine for a New Year's Eve honeymoon. As they begin to share details from their pasts, they grapple with the early-marriage questions many new couples confront: Should we start a family? Where should we live? Ian's childhood friend Scott, played by Lee Holmes, arrives uninvited. As the weather outside moves from snowfall into blizzard, the characters inside start unraveling secrets, and their feelings intensify.
The three actors inhabit their characters and beautifully traverse, each in his or her own fashion, the emotional ramp up which the narrative travels. Keeler's character is a therapist, and we watch her try to remain measured and sane as the situation veers toward crazy. Ian is forced to confront several demons, and Manning moves his character along a believable emotional path from happy honeymooner to ... something else. Lee Holmes's portrayal of Scott hits just the right degree of unstable, never crossing the line into cliché. His expert handling of the character is all the more impressive when considering he's been off stage for eight years, working locally as a web designer and developer.
The play centers upon the meeting of past and present, and that theme holds true behind the scenes as well. Brooklyn-based playwright Miles attended Lynn English and Salem State, and served many years as music teacher at Collins Middle School. More than a decade ago, she taught an 11-year-old Nate Bertone. She noticed his gift for stagecraft and encouraged him to focus on set design. "She was by far the most inspiring teacher I had," Bertone said, speaking on set after the Saturday night performance of "Entangled." Bertone seized upon her advice, working his way up from usher at North Shore Music Theater to its youngest-ever set designer, a status he achieved while still attending Carnegie Mellon's School of Drama. He stayed in touch with his middle-school mentor as she moved from Salem to New York and grew her career. When she sent him the script for "Entangled," he immediately wanted to produce it. STC had mounted a production of Bertone's own play, "Letters from War," during the 2015 season and Bertone welcomed the chance to work in the company's new space.
In the fashion of his own mentor, Miles, Bertone used the play as an opportunity to further the budding career of another young local talent, Marblehead's Kathleen Alexandrou. The high school junior helped out with "Letters from War," and Bertone gave her a chance to shine as lighting designer on "Entangled." "So many people have done this for me," Bertone said. "I now want to do for her what they did."
Entangled plays Thursday-Saturday, September 29-October 1, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, October 1 and 3 p.m. at Salem Theatre Company, 35 Congress Street (Shetland Park), Third Floor. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.salemtheatre.com. For more information on Leah Miles, visit www.leahamiles.com. For more information on Nate Bertone, visit www.natebertone.com.)