Sometime, I’d like to see a futuristic play that looks at human nature for what it is—a grotesquely flawed concept that nonetheless seeks to define man’s glory for its own sake. Crappy little screeds like Age of Bees, Ruby Tuesday and Foxfinder are a dime a dozen, and they unapologetically take the easy way out; it’s simpler, after all, to showcase failure and doom than mastery over adversity. They also sell the theater dreadfully short. Surely, centuries of artistic and intellectual excellence must weigh in the balance as we set about staging our life stories and their place along the path to our sociopolitical destiny.
That said, I approached ion theatre company’s current double bill, Edgar & Annabel and Far Away, with a mildly jaundiced eye; never mind that ion continually presents some of the best fare in San Diego or that director Linda Libby has shown solid theatrical judgment for the last million years. Turns out I needn’t have worried, at least not much. The plays don’t show us at our best, and Edgar suffers from big logistical problems, but the production values reflect ion’s commitment to its maverick philosophy on performance art.
Crappy little screeds these aren’t.
Edgar & Annabel, the first un-crappy little screed, sets Edgar and Annabel (aka Nick and Marianne) to work against the ruling authoritarian body while operating under a cloak of acquiescence. Nick’s chirpy “I’m home” spurs a chatty conversation about what’s for dinner, with the two literally reading from prepared scripts into listening devices planted in the ceiling. Later, a likeminded young couple will join them in the building of a bomb, replete with lots of karaoke to dull the noise. The authorities may win, but Nick, Marianne and company ain’t goin’ with ’em.
The setting in this West Coast premiere is colorless and increasingly abstract, which means it requires that much more stylized an approach to the acting (think the people from the oppressive future in film’s Fahrenheit 451, and you’re on the right track). Playwright Sam Holcroft supplies this in generous part with the stilted, amateurish script-reading that’s also intended as a plot device—but some might feel that the technique verges on gimmickry, feeding the action before it has a chance to evolve on its own.
And I like Heart’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” as much as the next guy, but why exhaust such a nice pop resource to obfuscate noise amid only one activity (the laborious bomb-making from a million parts) for minutes on end? Come to think of it, bomb construction doesn’t necessarily involve noise at all; wherefore, then, the need to cover a din that doesn’t exist? Wouldn’t the authorities unearth the rebels’ whereabouts amid more noise than less? Weird.
But again, these concerns are logistical, not artistic. The cast has developed a pretty nice culture of ensemble, notably in the scenes where Nick (Zack Bonin) and Marianne (Abby Fields) and field agent Miller (Robin Christ) plot their next courses of action amid halfhearted introductions to one another and singular devotion to duty. Hanz Enyeart, Samantha Ginn, Jake Rosko and Rachael VanWormer hold up in lesser roles as the faceless regime exercises its murky sleight of hand.
Everybody returns in the San Diego premiere of Caryl Churchill’s absurdist Far Away, with one addition—little Abby DeSpain as young Joan, whose ghastly nightmare has come full circle as the blood of its child victims stains her feet. She’s a major figure in a much larger catastrophe, a global war in which animals and even landscapes have chosen national allegiances (the cats side with the French; the mallards are allied with the elephants and the Koreans, and they’re rapists to boot).
Clever aunt Harper (Christ) calmly fabricates answers to young Joan’s every question about the grisly images; from there, loyalties divide and fragment over the years. Corruption now plagues even the insidious hat industry, where a budding relationship between Joan (VanWormer) and Todd (Enyeart) goes bust. The upshot finds an emotionally bankrupt Harper reciting the litany of new allegiances, her tone approaching the nondescript amid a Brave New World set to topple itself.
If you like the late Sarah Kane (I adore her), you’ll like this. Like the cult-favorite Kane, Churchill plays beautifully off a consuming, almost pathological hatred of oppression in all its forms. Libby and assistant director Alice Cash exploit her almost oratorical speechifying, especially in the final scene, in which the three principals are positively outstanding amid their gift for actorial understatement. On opening day, I couldn’t stop laughing at the superb ending until I went to bed.
Scene designer Curtis Green and his assistant Ron Logan give us lots of turbid looks and linear construction and effects, suited to the roily climate half hidden by Karin Filijan’s judicious lights. Sound designer Melanie Chen and her assistant Chad Goss shine in the Far Away segment that features the parade of the warfare’s casualties. Costumer Mary Summerday has a handle on the program’s range of characters, from the well-scrubbed to the disheveled.
I’d go so far as to say our futures are not as oppressive as these plays (or any number of movies) hint. In the first place, western man’s too stupid to conspire against himself on any significant level for any significant time; second, even amid his idiocy, he knows what’s at stake in a world marked by dictatorship, which eventually consumes the dictators (through attrition if nothing else). Edgar & Annabel and Far Away are therefore not the cautionary tales some might want to think they are—that knowledge, and this program’s very well-conceived production values, should set your mind at ease.
This review is based on the media opening of March 8. Edgar & Annabel and Far Away run through March 29 at BLK BOX @ 6th&Penn, 3704 Sixth Ave. in Hillcrest. $35, call for discounts. 619-600-5020, iontheatre.com.