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Set somewhere “east of Australia and west of Peru,” Eric Overmyer’s women-on-a-time-trek comedy On the Verge fairly explodes with event and imagery, if not precisely with ideas. Language-drunk, intoxicatingly clever, by turns sententiously brittle and deliriously offbeat, it’s an exquisitely arch exercise in the writerly art, a fancy-flight whose chief allure is its power to fire the imagination using only the barest theatrical essentialsvocabulary, inflection, energyfor kindling. If it never really focuses on any particular theme (except maybe to thumb a nose at convention and put in a plug for the examined life), it’s still awfully engaging.
So is Keegan Theatre’s production: Amy McWilliams’ light-touch direction steers the proceedings resolutely away from seriousness, too much of which could hobble the play with an unforgivable air of self-importance, while her staging’s intimacy and her cast’s agreeable quirkiness infuse things with more warmth than another production might find in the cerebral script.
Overmyer’s initially straightforward plot sends a trio of intrepid women adventuring in a “Terra Incognita” that will turn out to be ironically familiar to us, if not to them. They’re no shrinking violetsthey’ve explored the Himalayas and the Orinoco, palavered with the Masai, and faced down the Yetibut, this being 1888, they are proper Victorians. And they dress like it, in full trekking kit: skirts, corsets, petticoats, and, of course, umbrellas (remarkably useful for hacking away at jungle undergrowth).
They brag to each other out loud and to themselves in private ruminations, each giddier, more rhythmic, more lyrically ridiculous than the last: “I introduced croquet to the headhunters at the headwaters of the Putumayo,” says one. (Her pupils’ inclinations notwithstanding, she insisted on regulation wooden balls.) Another once attended “the lunar congregation of the Buddhist alchemists” and watched the Dalai Lama “transmute great buckets of gold coinsinto yak butter.”
But we learn less about them from what they say about their pasts than from their reactions when they find that they’re not just pushing through tough terrainthey’re pushing rapidly forward through the decades of our century, discovering names like Nixon, Mrs. Butterworth, and Burma Shave along the way. No panic, no fear, no worries greet this revelation, just a curious excitement and an excited curiosity: “We are advancing through the wilderness of time,” theorizes a character. “That would explain why, now, burning in my forebrain like a Mosaic tablet, is the copyright date for a novel entitled Herzog,” comes the bemused reply. It’s this openness to new information, this readiness for the quest, that Overmyer champions.
Or is it that simple and upbeat? His subtitle is The Geography of Yearning; it could be that he’s mapping desolate places in the heart, implying with his torrents of exotic verbiage a conviction that nothing, however extraordinary, ever satisfies for long. Two of his adventurershe deliberately uses that word, not “explorers”settle and stay amid the bland, wholesome comforts of the ’50s, so perhaps not. But the other oneof the three, the most initially hidebound and traditionalpushes on, eager to grasp yet more of the unknown, disappearing, the script says, in a blaze of light at the final curtain. So maybe.
I’m not at all sure profundity is the point. If it is, McWilliams and her adventurers (Jennifer Deal, Jennifer Gerdts, and Liz Demery) are playing against it. George Lucas’ minimalist set is a broad runway capped at either end by a platform, banked on either side by risers for the audience; the three playing areas it defines do duty as
veldt and jungle, gorge and glacier,
vile swamp and vulgar nightclub. McWilliams moves her cast over and around it in a staging that’s undeniably effectivespare and energetic, immediate and brashbut leaves precious little space for resonance.
All three of the actresses are charming and unfailingly competent, though I like Demery’s tightly wound Alex best; wiry, frustrated, a compact bundle of nerves, grievances, and glee, she’s the most kinetic force onstage. Stephon Walker, in a whirlwind series of roles, including a cannibal with an odd kind of indigestion, runs a close second.
The cast’s skill (and Overmyer’s glittering, literate craftsmanship) more or less obviates the question of deeper meaning. Whether it has any or not, On the Verge is eminently satisfying for the joy it takes in its own verbal brinksmanship, for the free-associative journey its denizens take. We get to tag along for the sheer pleasure of meeting a “smallish” snowball-throwing Yeti, hearing of lectures on “Tribadism in the Tropics,” and listening as an adventurous threesome masticates desperately but diligently on phrases like “amicable cannibal” and “ineligible dirigible.” Every so often, as an added enticement, someone will deliver herself of a rapturous ode to the loofah. Which, if you ask me, is simply delicious.CP