Friday, November 25, 2016

Review: The House Always Wins, and the Couch Wants to be King

By Ed Malin

I loved Cant.  I wish I could see it a few more times.  Now, I will attempt to describe and explain this wonderful play by Ian W. Hill, presented by the amazing Gemini CollisionWorks ensemble at The Brick.
Cant is a political play and a play that is conscious of itself, as will become clear.  Gemini Collision Works, this year’s massive New York Innovative Theatre Award winners, structure their universe as Thornton Wilder might, and use pleasantly confrontational techniques out of Richard Foreman, such as bright lights, a video projection of actress Rebecca Gray Davis reading certain stage directions and Lex Friedman’s voice giving the audience an authorial perspective on the action.
Act One takes place in a quaint, happy type of America, with a jazz soundtrack that suggests the 1950s, leading up to Our Boy’s election as President.  Lightning-fast wordplay abounds.  The imported Statue of Liberty (Ivanna Culinin) speaks French, and is told by the patriotic Uncle Sam French (David Arthur Bachrach) to speak English.   Houses come with built-in magical realism, with ghosts in the breakfast nook. In school, children take classes such as Intermediate American Values and study both Plessy vs Ferguson and Kramer vs Kramer.  Our Boy is played by two actors of different races (John Amir and Michael Rishawn).  Both actors appear together and perform complicated scenes in unison, explained cryptically in stage directions such as “Our Boy exeunt”.  Our Boy has two sets of parents (Alyssa Simon, Linus Gelber, Leila Okafor, Rolls Andre) and one younger sister (Anna Stefanic), who provides a piano accompaniment to the story.  Those in Our Boy’s community describe his meteoric rise to the Presidency and the sudden assassination of the black counterpart of Our Boy.  However, the white half of Our Boy survives and does rule, as the despotic Chairman Boy.  This is not a JFK story.  Or is it?  It is amazing to think how this the reading of play, which played November 5-20 on both sides of the general election, has changed from night to night.
photo by Mark Vetman
“The House Always Wins”, as disembodied voices tell us.   Two old-school reporters (Derrick Peterson and Olivia Baseman) show a great deal of style while interviewing those who knew Our Boy, such as the girl from his town (Zuri Johnson), alluring socialites (Amanda LaPergola), radicals (Kaitlyn Elizabeth Day) and Our Boy’s sister.  Further insight comes from the 70s-style TV program Black Perspective On The News, which is funded by the Kronos Foundation (“Building the World of Today, Tomorrow”).  The black counterpart of Our Boy was the nation’s conscience.  Although the nation can survive with a vicious leader who only cares for his class of people, it is a fearful place where a sense of inferiority drives some to oppress others.
From there, the cast begin to discover that the play has a life of its own and wants to escape from the theater.  At one point, it is suggested that the play is really about a phenomenon called the Coriolis Effect, but then the characters realize that this is only a poorly-executed attempt to be eligible for a Sloan Foundation grant.  In a truly poignant moment, we are asked if the enjoyment this particular audience gets from the play justifies the suffering of others elsewhere which the play has caused.  The author and director (Ian W. Hill) is occasionally seen wearing a sinister eyepatch over his spectacles, so it is quite a shock when the cast, while theorizing that in modern productions, “the director is dead”, find the director’s head in a box.   From there, the cast fights the desire to sit on the couch and recite bad monologues suitable only to formulaic cinema.  A lot more profound stuff happens, and the couch even joins in the curtain call.
The normal offering from Gemini CollisionWorks is mind-blowingly impressive.  This work, with the unexplained title usually reserved for shoddy rhetoric, dissects our country, gives us time to laugh about it, gently answers some of the questions already posed, and then questions the nature of reality, theater, etc.   The set is full of scaffolding on one side and on the other features a ladder which we are told is just a ladder.  Some of the conventions of the play harken back to great dramatic innovators of the 20th Century, but for a world which is sadly lacking in decency.   The cast of eighteen, who collaborated in the development of the play, work extremely well together in the intimate space of The Brick.  There is always something to look at and process throughout the two and a half hours of show.