Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Drowned World, directed by Ken Webster, FronteraFest at Blue Theatre, January 21, 25, 31, February 1

Ken Webster's austere staging of this vision of a nightmare world uses the vocal and emotional projection of these four actors with the formal eloquence and depth of a string quartet. The music here is their inflection, counterpart, and conviction in a narrative that raises the hairs on the back of your neck.

Ben Wolfe appears first, in solo, as Darren, citizen in a world drowned in gray totalitarianism and decay. Motionless, from the depth of the stage he recounts a simple train journey, the pain of attraction, and his effort to find an "angel." The range and intensity of his telling, like a lengthy, complex solo cello sonata, is all the more striking because he scarcely moves a muscle. The color and depth of the text overrides our lazy spectator demands for visual excitement.

The rest of the quartet joins him. They stand virtually motionless in the depth of the stage, dressed in featureless dark clothing. They unfold the story, each speaking in first person when solo and reverting to dialogue when interacting with one another. At intervals of ten to fifteen minutes in this 90-minute piece the words stop, the lights fall away to black briefly and then re-illuminate the stage, where the four artists stand in the same positions and attitudes as before.

Instead of a Singspiel, this is a Hörspiel. The German term is used for radio plays, and in fact you could appreciate the depth, violence and images with your eyes closed. The presence of the actors before you adds a corporality to the story that heightens your sense of the vulnerability of characters, actors and humanity itself.

Tara (Xochitl Romero) and Julian (Benjamin Summers) are lovers, in hiding from police who have been carrying out systematic raids and mandated "quarantines" of individuals guilty of possessing "radiance," a sort of vitality and charisma not conforming with the duties of citizens of an authoritarian state. Diligent citizen Kelly (Andrea Skola), with quarantine order in hand, takes thugs to apprehend, torture and murder the uncomplying lovers. Her glimpse of Julian at the window saps her will.

The lovers escape, attempt mutual suicide and intrude into the apartment of hapless Darren, who takes them in. He sees Tara as the angel of his yearnings. In clumsy efforts to sustain the triangle by selling on the black market hair and then teeth imbued with their radiance, Darren stumbles into Kelly, defrocked as a police officer and sent undercover to find the lovers.

Gary Owen's vision of that gray world is complete and convincing. His text is blank verse, especially in the mouths of these players. He meticulously describes desires, betrayals, exploitations and killings with a power of language and image evoking an Aristotelian level of pity and fear.

Owens is writing much more than an Orwellian meditation. In addition to oppression, these characters are exploring for us themes of intimacy, attraction and allegiance, decay and death, hope and the human condition. The finale finds us with two couples, of unexpected composition, the first imprisoned in that drowned world and the second in inscrutable apotheosis. His final image is cryptic: a silver moon seen through a burned, torn hand, delighting a girl child.

Ken Webster told us that this piece has to date been performed in the United Kingdom and in Chicago. Wolfe, Romero, Skola and Summers take the stage only three more times during Austin's FronteraFest.

See them. Be preprared to concentrate. Don't expect any laughs. Prepare to be haunted and rewarded.

Comments by Brian Losoya of Daily Texan, in article on FronteraFest, January 23

Review by Avimaan Syam in Austin Chronicle of January 30

Review by Ryan E. Johnson on, January 30

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