Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Review: Oh the Horror!

It takes bravery to take a risk. Especially in theater. Sometimes that one risk you take can alter an entire production. Such is the case in Pipeline Theatre Company's The Gray Man by Andrew Farmer. But more on that later.
The Gray Man is a haunting ghost story about a man named Simon as he navigates reality and perception. Following the death of his mother and a string of child disappearances, Simon sets out to regain control all while remembering the story of a boogeyman type character who tempts and lures children from their home. What The Gray Man does flawlessly is great storytelling. Farmer is sharp by allowing the story to unravel through bits and pieces. What Farmer and director Andrew Neisler do well is play upon our greatest fears. Haunting and scaring an audience takes expert precision and their collaboration did just that. But in a live theatrical piece, sensory trucks are just as important. Darkness is a great fear. And depriving the audience of seeing was brilliant. The live music soundscape was vivid and necessary to get inside the audiences head. Playing with echoes and vibrations allowed the harsh reality of darkness settle in. But when darkness was abandoned for light once again, the audience needed to see the fear that they projected. And that's where that huge risk comes in.
photo by Suzi Sadler
There's a line from The Producers where Max Bialystock boasts about being the man who invented theater in the square where nobody had a good seat. And it's even more so true with a rectangle. But the biggest risk The Gray Man made was made was placing a giant scenic piece smack dab in the middle of the stage. The giant structure by Andy Yanni was stunningly crafted but it caused some massive issue. To say The Gray Man had horrid site line problems is a severe understatement. Depending on your seat, it's quite possible you missed key parts of the show. Whether it was character interactions, sudden appearances, or a scenic transformation, complete visibility was nonexistent. It was a giant risk that Neisler and Yanni took and sadly it hurt the overall production. While it felt immersive, it was just an intimate experience. Finding a way to share this vision in a three quarter thrust with the centerpiece toward the back, the payoff could have been grander. You may have been able to see everything you were intended to see. Regardless, the intent was bold and you have to commend the team for taking a giant risk.
Capable storytellers were brought together to bring this tale to life. As the perpetually fearful Simon, Daniel Johnsen captured the essence of mystery. By playing scared and weary, he allowed the audience to tag along on his journey. As the curious best friend John, Shane Zeigler found a way into Simon's psyche. Katharine Lorraine and Claire Rothrock took on the dual roles of maternal storyteller and neighborly comic relief. Both Lorraine and Rothrock happened to be wonderful reciters of fear. As Simon's neighbor and confidant Grace, Tahlia Ellie was youth on display.
When it comes to engaging the audience, Neisler succeeded. The goal was to spook the audience and he did just that. As previously stated, Neisler focused deeply on senses and it was a fascinating psychological experiment. Lighting designer Christopher Bowser capitalized on the use of light and lack there of. During the darkness montage, Bowser and Neisler allowed the company to navigate the stage safely, bringing the story all around the space. As a transformation occurred, the space filled with fog and when Bowser brought the lights up, the throw of the light cast seemed to play tricks on your mind. These snapshots were short and forced the audience to quickly find the voice and the light.
The Gray Man is a winning production when it comes to distinctive storytelling. There is nothing more exciting that knowing you’re about to be scared and attempting to prepare yourself for it. But that set! It’s unfortunate that an experience could be altered by one giant element.