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The maxim that theater requires nothing more than “three planks and a passion” has stood a long enough test of time that it’s probably not wise to amend it at this point. Still, let it be said that adding a couple of bolts of fabric doesn’t hurt.
That’s all designer Greg Mitchell and the design team of Matt Soule and Alex Cranmer have needed this week to turnfor off-nights at the Source Theatre and the Clark Street Playhouse, respectivelya Mametian junk shop into hell, and a stylized Spanish desert into a persuasively frigid glacier. Who’da thunk?
In each case, the designers are abetting a more extravagant dramatic transformation than initially meets the eye, for in etherealizing the settings of American Buffalo and Blood Weddingplays that are, for all their poetry of expression, ferociously concerned with the day-to-day existence of charactersthe designers are creating spaces more attuned to theater that has precious little to do with the here and now, and everything to do with ideas.
That’s admittedly an odd claim to be making for Terra Nova, Ted Tally’s drama about British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his 1911 bid to beat Norway’s Roald Amundsen to the South Pole. Much of the evening’s dialogue is concerned with subzero temperatures, frozen toes, and the mechanics of hauling a sled packed with 1,000 pounds of provisions some 800 miles to a desolate spot no man has ever reached. But as Project Y’s clever, sharply conceived production chronicles the Scott expedition’s increasingly perilous predicament, complicated by accidents, nature, and human nature, what ratchets up the tension is a clash of ideologies.
Scott (Scot McKenzie) is a Brit of the arrogant, stiff-upper-lip sort, secure in the opinion that his nation’s empire-building has ever been, and will continue to be, good for the globe. He’s also prone to judgmental pronouncements about his Norwegian rival, who so haunts his thoughts that the author can’t resist bringing him onstage, even though it’s only the Scott mission to the pole that’s being depicted. As played acerbically by Tyson Lien, Amundsen is a marvelously annoying creature, tall where Scott is slight, scientific by nature where Scott is scientific only by inclination. What Scott really believes in is man’s nobility and the importance of the heroic gesture. So it’s not surprising that he’s utterly confounded by a declaration made by Amundsen about the use to which he intends to put man’s best friend: “A husky,” says the pragmatic Norwegian, “is 50 pounds of dinner, hauling you along until you need to eat it.”
Scott can’t imagine the kind of mind that would conceive of eating dogs, but once on the Antarctic ice, with an injured man slowing his party and death looming in a hostile landscape, he’s faced with decisions far more dire. Tally’s script wisely keeps the conversation elevated as complications keep piling on, and if Cranmer’s staging exhibits a morbid fascination with the stench of gangrene and the blackening of frostbitten toes, it concentrates most of its energies on the exploration of ideas and ideals.
Project Y has struck me since its inception as the smartest of the city’s younger theater troupes, perhaps because it’s an offshoot of the similarly idea-oriented, fiercely political Potomac Theatre Project, which struck me as the smartest of the city’s previous generation of itinerant companies. Devoted to providing thought-provoking theater for 20-something audiences, Project Y has consistently aimed high and hit higher, although it has mostly been performing at a distinct disadvantage in cramped quasi-theatrical spaces.
Freed up by the comparatively vast expanses of the Clark Street Playhouse, and with its energetic ensemble performing in a caution-to-the-winds style that translates smartly to a big auditorium, the company is now marking a major step forward with Terra Nova. So far forward, in fact, that as Scott’s weary explorers pitch their tents before the stage’s parachute-silk promontories (occasionally bathed in a subdued aurora australis by lighting designer Ayun Fedorcha), you may have trouble deciding if the chill you feel is due to the persuasiveness with which fabric is standing in for ice or to a palpable, invigorating sense of theatrical discovery.
While I was watching Bill Largess negotiate his way through all nine circles of hell in his new adaptation of Dante’s Inferno, it occurred to me that (the use of some electronic gewgaws by Washington Stage Guild’s sound and lighting designers notwithstanding) the audience was taking a journey not unlike the one taken by Dante’s contemporaries some 700 years ago.
The Italian poet was writing, after all, before the invention of the printing presswhich meant that medieval fans of versifying would have been far more likely to encounter his Divine Comedy aurally than on the page, possibly interpreted by performers who acted its narrative, adopting different voices for different characters.
Largess, as I mentioned, gets a little electronic help in this regard. When he speaks as Dante’s beloved Beatrice, sound man Brian D. Keating sends the words spinning through circuitry that adds otherworldly echoes in feminine timbres. A different set of echoes enhances the voices of a Stygian boatman, the three-headed Cerberus, and other Beelzebubbly souls. And when Largess tours hell’s Seventh Circle, home to those who are guilty of sins of violence, designer Marianne Meadows bathes the underside of the bleachers in scarlet light, persuasively creating the river of blood Dante describes.
For all these theatrical accouterments, it’s the descriptions themselves that have the real power to captivate. Dante’s evoking of “tears milked from the eyes of men” or of a sinner “split open from his chin to the farting place” are vivid enough as spoken by Largess to relegate stage effects to a supporting role. Dante’s work, at once visceral and possessed of robust humor, is credited with formalizing the Italian language, much as Chaucer’s did English, and even in translation, it’s easy to see why his phrasing would have inspired imitation.
Largess is inventive about varying what is, even in radically shortened form (reciting the whole Inferno would take more than five hours), one hell of a long monologue. His stage adaptation mostly excises references to the public figures of the author’s daywhich is both entirely understandable and kind of a shame. Dante took some nifty liberties. If he didn’t like someonesay, a tax collector or a cardinalhe consigned him to an appropriate circle of hell in the poem, and authorities thus consigned grew annoyed enough to banish him. Still, most such references would be lost on audiences today, and in the interest of creating a manageable 90-minute evening, they’re reasonable cuts.
John MacDonald’s staging makes clever use of the American Buffalo props that Mitchell hasn’t covered in gauzy fabrica cheesy fake fireplace glows red, for instance, when hellfire and brimstone are required. And if deftness of execution doesn’t really make the show more than a theatrical stunt, it’s still a literate, sophisticated one. Not to mention that it’s an ideal companion piece to The Invention of Love, which is currently taking audiences on a somewhat more contemporary trek across the River Styx, just down 14th Street. CP