Review: Ephemera (Polarity Ensemble Theatre)

  
  

The last lost in space cadets

  
  

Kaelan Strouse and Kim Boler - Ephemera

  
Polarity Ensemble Theatre presents
  
Ephemera
  
Written by Bryce Wissel
Directed by Laura Sturm
at Josephinum Academy, 1500 N. Bell (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $19  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

You have to hand it to Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s latest production, a daffy space opera called Ephemera. It wings its charming way through its almost stream-of-consciousness universe while, at the same time, interjecting notes of wisdom and flashes of sobering reality. Not so sobering that it subverts its comic balance—playwright Bryce Wissel challenges his characters but never allows them to sink into maudlin self-pity or self-absorption. Directed by Laura Sturm, Ephemera does that delicate dance of riffing on well-worn and outlandish tropes from sci-fi, creates a few new ones on its own, while nodding to the obvious drawbacks of a life suspended in space. The crew of orbital space station Ephemera shows all the wear and tear of living the most ungrounded of existences but that hardly keeps them from playing out all their individual idiosyncrasies, even to the living end.

Kim Boler and Jonas Gray - EphemeraPresented in “installments” by greeter Androids 1 and 2 (Hilary Holbrook and Sarah Grant), the story begins with Ephemera’s crew discovering a talking monkey trapped in its airlock. The monkey, Davy (played with superb body language by Charley Jordan) was the original test monkey sent into space during NASA’s early exploration days. Perhaps–and only perhaps–decades of exposure to interstellar radiation have speeded his evolution to the point where he can hold affable conversation, jovially drink down the station’s alcohol and hit on Colonel Kate McBride (Kim Boler). True to sci-fi/action thriller formula, Kate’s the only female on board–so, of course, Davy’s not Kate’s only suitor. Manuel (Kaelan Strouse), an android who was probably weaned on Telemundo programming, exerts all his exuberant Latin charm to woo her–not to mention showboat the audience.

As hotly pursued as Kate is, it’s through her we discover the darker aspects of Ephemera’s nut-house environment—they have been on board, orbiting Earth, for who knows how long or for what purpose. There’s been no communication from Earth and they all have no memory of any time before they were there. “I don’t even know if we came here willingly,” she plaintively tells Davy. It quickly becomes clear that the crew’s behavior reflects the time-wasting, random goofiness of people without direction or relief from meaningless routine. “Everyone I know has heard all of my jokes,” complains Colonel James Bowie (Jonas Grey). The only one having fun with his role seems to be Commander William B. Travis (played with absurdist brilliance by Bob Wilson) and mostly because his role on the station seems to have been fabricated out of thin air.

      
     Kim Boler, Jonas Grey, Charley Jordan, Kaelan Strouse, Bob Wilson, Sarah Grant and Hilary Holbrook - Ephemera Charles Jordan and Kim Boler - Ephemera
Jonas Grey, Kaelan Strouse, Kim Boler, Charles Jordan - Ephemera Kaelan Strouse in 'Ephemera'

Even the comedy’s non-linear story structure, replete with dropped-in asides from the characters, instills repetitive and nonsensical time loops in the action. Wissel’s comedy matches the flukiness of Douglas Adams’ or even Tom Robbins’ novels. At the heart of its highly randomized exposition is a workplace comedy, where work is very definitely not the issue but getting along with the quirks of one’s co-workers is. For the most part, the non-linear storytelling is very successful—only in the second act does it begin to wear itself out as a MacGuffin. However, Sturm’s cast is spot-on in pace, timing and delivery—a factor made all the more exacting by the production’s technical elements. Plus, artist lewis lains’ set design and further art installations create a great space for the cast’s gentle and gracious finale that brings the show home clean, clear and truthful. If a little more editing could be employed, Ephemera just might takes its place in the stars among its illustrious space comedy forebears.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Jonas Gray, Charles Jordan, Kim Bolder

Ephemera continues through May 1st at Josephinum Academy, 1500 N. Bell (map), with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $19, and can be purchased online. More info at www.pettheatre.com.

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REVIEW: The Censor (Ebb and Flow Theatre)

 

The sex whisperer

Censor 1

   
Ebb and Flow Theatre presents
 
The Censor
   
Written by Anthony Neilson
Directed by
Mike Rice
at
The Basement, 1142 W. Lawrence (map)
through November 20  |  tickets: $10  |  more info

I’ve been to theater in basements before—nice, clean church basements, whose price is right for the cash-strapped theater company. But the setting for Ebb and Flow Theatre’s current production, The Censor, is a basement of an altogether different order—dank, musty, dirty, with an air of eerie abandonment. It’s a basement where you wonder where the bodies are buried. If you are tall, watch your head. Pipes jutting from the fairly low ceiling only contribute to the show’s claustrophobic atmosphere. Ebb and Flow want to give Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson’s play all the subterranean impact they can, given that the play is about our tendency to relegate explicit sex, and all attempts to depict it, to a foul and shame-filled underworld.

Censor 6 Under the direction of Mike Rice, this basement is the office of The Censor (John Gray). He works in the pornography department to which the Board of Classification has consigned him and it serves as a purgatory to which he’s resigned himself. “Do you know what we call this place?” he asks Ms. Fontaine (Geraldine Dulex), creator of the sexually explicit film he is in the process of rating. “It’s called ‘The Shithole’.” At another juncture he confesses, “We’re virtually lepers down here.” It’s his duty to act as society’s guardian, rating the pornography that comes across his desk, protecting the rest of us from its illicit images. Yet simply coming into contact with such material has rendered him a pariah in his co-workers’ eyes.

Ms. Fontaine tries to make The Censor “see” her film as she intended, the story of a love affair depicted in images, not words, using only “the international language of sex.” At first one suspects she’s pulling the tired, old “porn as art” ruse in order to win a less restrictive rating but, first and foremost, Fontaine is a believer. Her attempts to convince The Censor clearly indicate that she is out to obtain converts. As though she were a prophet, seer, or mystic, she then reads The Censor sexually and emotionally, proving her currency with the “language of sex” by accurately guessing his childhood and current marital state without anything divulged from him. Ms. Fontaine becomes the Sex Whisperer to all The Censor’s secret sexual privations, insecurities, and humiliations. Their relationship takes on a therapeutic, as well as pornographic, aspect as he opens up about the true nature of his sexually desiccated day-to-day existence.

Much about Ebb and Flow’s production is enjoyable. Neilson’s dialogue is tight, riveting and often poetic. Rice’s direction moves the action along convincingly and realistically—no small feat for a play that mimics porn scenarios. John Gray’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. He lends meaty depth, humor and humanism to his character’s loneliness, isolation and constant, neurotic desperation to do things correctly. Dulex may have a greater challenge depicting Fontaine, who often comes across as the all-knowing voice of sex and hardly seems human at all. Dulex definitely captures Fontaine’s oddly enigmatic, distanced perspective. For all

the daring with which this messiah engages in sex, the emotional connections are just not there.

 

Censor 2 Censor 4

As for me, I came away from The Censor unconvinced as to its “in-yer-face” daring or authenticity. An award-winning play, The Censor depends just a little too heavily on basing Fontaine’s legitimacy upon her quasi-mystical sexual therapy. The scenario of the wiser, more experienced sexual partner claiming greater knowledge than the inexperienced or repressed initiate—knowing him better than he knows himself—is as old as porn itself. It certainly receives no refreshing or insightful treatment here. Furthermore, the play is hampered by the scattered introduction of The Censor’s wife (Amy Johnson) between the scenes in which Fontaine makes her case about the film. It was almost a relief to see Johnson sit down in an actual scene with Gray. Finally their marital malaise was palpable and thoroughly cemented his ostracization to the porn purgatory he has, essentially, chosen.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Censor 3

REVIEW: People We Know (the side project)

Perpetuating denial through the company we keep

 

people-we-know7

   
the side project presents
  
People We Know
  
by Robert Tenges
directed by
Adam Webster
at
side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis  (map)
through June 6th  tickets: $18  |  more info

reviewed by Robin Sneed

There are plays that require the delicacy of actors turned surgeons to give them breath. In the complex, People We Know, written by Robert Tenges, the doctors are in the house. First, you will be hit with the anesthesia of sarcastic and witty one liners, then they get down to the work of dismantling the empty social connection of three people-we-know5 couples who live in a faded post-modern framework of loose traditional roles and well-rehearsed lines.

The play opens a year after Paul, played by C. Sean Pierman, has been accused and convicted of sexually abusing a young student in his class. In a series of flashback scenes, Pierman plays the days leading up to Paul’s incarceration as carefully and exactly as a man about to cut into a human heart . He does a quiet slow shuffle of a dance when he decides to tell his friend Eric, played by Robert Koon, of his dilemma. Sliding between the incident as being nothing to worry about to the fear he is in serious trouble, Pierman never resorts to expectedly creepy signals or overt body language. He deftly and believably maintains a teacher dude and boyish Peter Pan-never-grew-up quality. He elicits sympathy, but not too heavily; this is subtlety to its very core.

Robert Koon’s approach to Eric is bold, with a Teflon coating, masking an emptiness that is remarkable in its thoroughness. Eric is a narcissist of the first order, but not of the dramatically and emotionally overwrought variety we typically see. In the conversation in which Paul tells him he has been accused of molesting a child, Eric immediately refers to the child as a liar. He laughs at the situation heartily, and tells his friend they will discover by way of tests that the child is certainly lying and she and her family will owe Paul an apology. Koon hits this flat world of taking sides by way of strong language, without care for actual outcomes, perfectly.

Alcohol, played by wine and beer, is a constant companion to all of the characters in this work. These are not raging drunks, but people who must have a glass of medication in their hands most all the time or the vapid existence they carefully tend might reveal itself as such. The play is shot through with moments of clarity. Fleeting, never lit on, but sipped quietly away into the gentle buzz of the status quo.

Dianne, Paul’s wife, played by Amy Johnson, remains emotionally lost a year after her husband’s sentencing. The other couples have shunned her with silence, and are only just inviting her back into the fold at the beginning of the play. They had no idea what to do with her, about her, or for her, and so quietly erased her from their lives through lack of contact. Johnson provides the razor to this piece in brief moments, pinpointing the apathy, the recited lines, then resumes her own role as the wife who still loves her husband, stands by her man, however unattached to the idea she may feel. There is no fervor in this, but a longing that he will reveal himself to her emotionally, giving her a kind of salvation for her long suffering.

Joshua, played by Andy Hager, is the would be earthy man who sees good in love and family. If not for the dead quiet force called support by his wife, he would be seemingly content and accepting of life as it is. Hager plays this with a keen sense of humor and an insight into the situation that no one around him seems to catch on to. Elizabeth Bagby, as his wife, Hannah, brings pathos to a woman who only need shift her attention to a different man with a better job to fulfill her own expectations and maintain her vision of what life should be like. Through tears, Hannah mourns her choice to leave Joshua for what she perceives as bigger and better things, but there is a steeliness to achieve that trumps love. Hagby brings all of this with a quiet intensity that is riveting.

 

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The root of this piece is Maddy, played by Kirsten D’Aurelio. Maddy is part childless earth mother, part old school socialite whose softness and understanding allow for this play of ultimately apathetic friends to swirl around her without real upheaval. She will take care of everyone, she can be counted on. Without her, this world would crumble, starting with her husband, Eric. She willingly pretends to be young women he knows to arouse him sexually as unabashedly and sweetly as if she has no real idea the cost to her emotionally. At times she seeks freedom, but slips back into her roots – that of matron without true motherhood; mothering a man child who still wants to have a baby even after she has had several miscarriages. D’Aurelio plays this without any of the clichés of the enabler. This is a unique performance of unwavering strength; one that includes burgeoning homosexuality, all offered without guile.

In People We Know, the audience gets to know the characters quite well. Within the play, they stand separate from each other only brushing by at arms length. Could any of these outwardly appearing friends have known Paul was molesting a child? No, because the structure of their lives, the agreed upon language, the self absorption, doesn’t allow for it. Only Paul’s wife, Dianne, has a hint from a memory of their wedding night. Sitting there in her perfect white dress, with her perfect new husband, sipping champagne, doubt crosses her face as he tells her a story about his childhood. She smiles the wistful smile of an already weary performer and shrugs it away, going on to build her perfect glass house.

Directed with quiet and steady pressure by Adam Webster, People We Know does not seek to flay and enrage, soothe or heal. It only seeks to impress that we don’t know who we don’t know by careful orchestration of ourselves and the people around us. We play our roles well, choose others who play their roles well, perpetuating damage by a refusal to live truthfully with ourselves and the people around us. It is within this framework that navels are gazed at while children are hurt, growing up to play those same roles in a never ending show of polite and potentially soul killing company.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

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