Theatre ReviewsTom Williams

Barleby the Scrivener

Bartleby the Scrivener

Adapted from Herman Melville

By R. L. Lane

Directed by Richard Cotovsky

Produced by Mary-Arrchie Theatre

Kudos to Mary-ArrchieTheatre and director Richard Cotovsky for producing Bartleby the Scrivener. This simple allegorical drama is deep in meaning as we struggle to discover who the enigmatic Bartleby is and why he reacts as he does. Herman Melville’s novella, in an adaptation by R. L. Lane, is set in 1853 on Wall Street in the emerging financial district of New York City.

Standard (Todd Lahrman) runs a well respected law firm. He is a mild-mannered, ethical attorney with a busy practice. He finds himself in need of another scrivener (one who copies legal documents by hand). He completes his staff of scriveners with the stoic Bartleby (Kevin V. Smith)—a quiet, unassuming and totally focused man. Bartleby copies legal documents with a laser beam like ferocity.

He is surrounded by interesting fellow scriveners. Turkey (Leonard Kraft) is the aging copier who works fine in the morning but fades after drinking too many glasses of ale at lunch. Nippers (Carlo Lorenzo Garcia) is the younger scrivener who is grumpy in the morning but effective the rest of the day. Then there is the boy Ginger Nut (Shirley Cean Rogiers) who is both a scrivener and the office schlepper. Their delicate office balance is disturbed by Bartleby’s individuality. His silent resolve quickly makes him an outsider with whom Standard both admires and loathes. Bartleby sure marches to the beat of his own drummer. When told to do something other than copy a document, Bartleby stands and stiffly states: “I would prefer not to.” No explanation—just that short polite but firm utterance. Standard and the staff are rattled. Bartleby quietly returns to his desk to do more copying.

As Bartleby’s quiet resistance increases, the office and his fellow scriveners sink into near chaos. Standard is frustrated yet admirers Bartleby despite his quirkiness. As Bartley becomes more defiant and useless, Standard grows weary yet continues to try to befriend the silent, lonely Bartley.

The play moves from farce to tragedy and back again. We never learn much about Bartley but we witness Standard’s humanity as he supports Bartley despite his self-destructiveness. Todd Lahrman anchors the play as Standard while Kevin V. Smith was brilliant as the restrained Bartley. Smith stands still with a frozen expression for minutes at a time in one of the most discipline performances I’ve witnessed in many a year. I believe Melville uses Bartley as a symbolic figure to represent man’s quiet resistance to conformity as modern business renders people into assembly work—such as scrivener perform. Friendship and tolerance toward the quirks of others are also highlighted here. There are several valid interpretations of Bartley’s behavior—see this worthy show and judge for yourself Bartley motivation. This is a gem of a show.


Tom Williams

At Angel Island, 735 W. Sheridan Road Chicago, IL 773-871-0442, Tickets $18 – 420 – $22. Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8 pm. Sundays at 2 pm. Running time is 90 minutes without intermission. Through April 11, 2009 Famous Melville novella comes to life at Angel Island.

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