The BenchMark at Step Up Productions: Theater review
Richard A. Roberts's well-meaning portrait of a well-read homeless man gets a handsome production at the Athenaeum.
Mark (Daniel Houle), who guides us through Richard A. Roberts’s play The BenchMark, is charismatic, intelligent, well-read—and homeless. He spits wisdom from all over the Western canon, knowledge he’s culled from tossed-off books and public libraries. His engagement with the material is pretty extensive, and if he weren't based on a composite of three very real people the playwright knew, he might seem unbelievable. But this would seem to be the point. Shaun Renfro’s set, a public square from summer to winter, is built on books painted to resemble stone. It’s a smart move—just a twist of symbolism—but it says everything: Meaning is often beneath the surface.
Houle carries the play effectively as Mark. He gives a frank and unsentimental performance, driven by a need to maintain his dignity and justify his existence to an audience of people who may very well walk past him if he wasn’t given a stage. But while his story falls at the center of the play, his surrounding environment is no less important. Transitions between seasons are conveyed through the movements of people who frequent the park: a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Andrew Seller), a young student (Tricia Roderiguez), an adulterous couple (AJ Froeber and Heather L. Jenks), and a tough but well-meaning cop (Robert Wilson). Each follows their own dramatic arc throughout the play, becoming as memorable a part of the experience as Mark’s literary musing. The Bag Lady (Amy Geist), whose silence and unpredictability provide tension and comic relief, is especially fascinating as her destiny and Mark’s become entwined.
The BenchMark is certainly well-produced in all aspects, and the story it tells is touching. But as a force for change the play desires to be, the use of his perspective feels limited. Mark’s understanding of the classics makes him immediately non-threatening, like he’s meeting us on our own terms. He speaks to us in our own language—including, most insipidly, Shakespeare. We don’t have to be challenged by him because he has met us where we are. I had to wonder what the effects of removing this opportunity for transformation were, and if the reason we followed Mark’s story was not because we wanted to understand him, but because we already did.