Arts & Culture

Review: Asolo Conservatory offers up fine acting, stagecraft in 'The Water Engine'

David Mamet was still a rising playwright when he created 'The Water Engine" In 1976. He had already written a couple of very successful plays -- "American Buffalo" and "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" -- but he was far from the icon of American theater that he is today.

"The Water Engine" didn't help Mamet make major strides in his reputation. It's odd and sometimes awkward. "Gimmicky," one local theater professional called it.

But while the play is far from first-rate Mamet, it has some power and some character, and nearly 40 years after it premiered it still feels relevant.

Those attributes, plus fine acting and excellent stagecraft, make the season-opening production from the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training succeed.

The story revolves around an amateur inventor who, in 1934, develops an engine that runs on water. His plan is to patent the engine and make enough money so that he can retire and care for his blind sister.

He is immediately suspicious of the lawyer he chooses, though, and even more suspicious of the lawyer's unctuous colleague who suddenly appears. It's soon apparent that the inventor has run afoul of powerful, almost omnipotent, people and forces.

"The Water Engine" began its life as a radio play, and when Mamet adapted it for the stage he turned it into a hybrid. It begins as a radio play, with actors standing at microphones, and gradually gives way to a more con

ventional staging.

All the way though, traces of the radio play, such as an on-stage sound effects artist, remain.

Director Greg Leaming interjects some clever ideas to make the transition and the combination of disparate staging styles work well. And the concept is intriguing at first, but (through no fault of the director) becomes overworked and a little annoying before the play's over.

The play isn't much more than an hour long, and the story is a bit too condensed. The nefarious intrigue starts almost as soon as the action begins, and there's no time to get to know the characters or their situations.

It's still entertaining, it makes its points with some power, and the costume design work by Becki Lee Stafford is gorgeous and evocative.

Best of all, the conservatory's second-year students are consistently excellent. They're all charismatic and meticulous, and generally do an effective job with Mamet's distinctive and difficult style of dialogue (sometimes called "Mametspeak") that often gives experienced professionals a hard time.

The strength of the cast -- especially Josh James as the inventor and Lisa Woods as his sister -- is a sign that the conservatory's stage season could be another strong one.

Details: Through Nov. 23, Cook Theatre at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $28-$29. Information: 941-351-8000, www.asolorep.org.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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