“Burn This” smoldered, flared and radiated heat. And like a real fire, sometimes it sucked all the air out of the room. Riverwalk Theatre’s latest black box play, penned by Lanford Wilson and directed by Michael Hays, is billed as “passionate drama.” That’s like calling a brutal death a “noteworthy occurrence.” “Burn This” takes theatrical passion and drama to an extreme level.
The rollercoaster of emotion includes deep sorrow, intense grief, rage, anguish, fear, pain and sexual tension. The dynamic cast and intimate theater had me up close and intimately personal with characters that were not always easy to watch. At times, I felt about as gleeful as I might feel gazing at a gory surgery from an observation gallery.
It would be awkward sharing an elevator, stadium or continent with any of the four characters. Larry, convincingly played by Zach Riley, was the most consistent and likeable. His unabashed gay character provided the most comedic moments — but none that could properly be called comic relief. There were flashes of humor and tenderness but no really lighthearted or truly comforting spots in the two and a half hour — plus intermission — drama. That can leave a viewer feeling drained.
“Burn This” features a complex plot and complex cast. The centerpiece of the ensemble is Anna, a dancer who, depending on the scene, can be fragile, strong, troubled, vibrant, reserved or heady. Carissa Zielinski not only assumed all those attributes, she all but became the multifaceted Anna.
There were times when I was disappointed in Anna’s actions or choices, because Zielinski had me believing the person on stage was real. Michael Banghart, as Pale, was authentic and riveting, and his New Jersey accent and mannerisms were spot-on. Banghart tugged at my heart, but his on-stage instability, emotion, agitation and temper also had me woefully uncomfortable.
Adam Carlson plays Burton, a silver spoon-fed movie writer in a star-studded world well beyond the others. But instead of looking like Saks Fifth Avenue, Burton looked and acted more like J.C. Penney. As engaging as Carlson was, I found it hard to accept his mundane image. Surrounded by a trio of outlandish company, he seemed too ordinary.
The actors maintained a burning intensity through the two-act, seven-scene play. The cast rarely stumbled on ceaseless lines that were often delivered in a rapid-fire manner. That speed — and the sporadic storyline — often had me bewildered, but I never got burnt out by the constant intensity.
Hay’s ability to orchestrate a play with outpourings of feelings and multiple plot tangents was impressive. His own passion for Wilson’s passionate play showed in the performances he pulled from his actors.
An imaginative set designed by Nick Eaton and props by Greg Pratt and Amanda Kennedy helped make the severity of the play more palpable. Unlike typical minimalist black box stages, Riverwalk’s show featured an vast apartment set with thoughtful details, including a working window with a view of a fire escape, a dance bar with full mirror, a real stairway and a working refrigerator. The believable kitchen had all the ingredients — everything and the kitchen sink, if you will.
Elaborate sound effects by Julian Hendrickson were remarkable additions. When a window opened, street noises were heard. A flushing toilet sounded real. The panic of being trapped in an attic with fluttering butterflies had noises to corroborate the fear.
The rough journey of “Burn This” is worth enduring. “Burn This” is definitely a hot ticket.
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7-Saturday, Oct. 8; 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9
$12/$10 seniors, students and military
Riverwalk Theatre 228 Museum Drive, Lansing
(517) 482-5700, riverwalktheatre.com