My idea of a perfect theatergoing month would be one in which twenty shows out of twenty would merit a WOW! review. I realize that this would only bolster the erroneous impression that, as one person put it, “Steven Stanley has never met a show he didn’t like,” but I’ve never understood reviewers who consistently pan what they see and then keep going back for more. I go to the theater because, quite frankly, nothing makes me happier.
Over the past few years, I’ve become rather adept at selecting productions likely to make me say “Wow!”—and then stand up and cheer. If the company producing the show and the playwright whose work is being performed have good track records, I’m likely to enjoy what I see.
There’s no better 99-seat theater company in the L.A. area than The Road. Each and every Road Theatre production over the past two years (The Bird And Mrs. Banks, And Neither Have I Wings To Fly, The Friendly Hour, and Lady) has gotten a WOW! from this reviewer, and before that there were Backwards In High Heels, Bunbury, and Ouroboros, to name just three other great productions. Lady happens also to have been written by Craig Wright, and while I haven’t followed Wright’s TV hits Dirty Sexy Money or Six Feet Under, I have loved every Craig Wright play I’ve seen, and there have been a bunch. Recent Tragic Events, Grace, The Pavilion, Orange Flower Water, and Lady are all plays I would eagerly go back and see again. Wright’s plays are engrossing, thought-provoking, and invariably unique.
When I heard that The Road would be producing Wright’s The Unseen, with Wright as director no less, I was needless to say excited about the news and looking forward to the production.
I’m pretty aware of my likes (and dislikes) in theater. Plays described as “surreal,” “experimental,” and “avant garde” are likely not to be found on my upcoming schedule, nor are plays with a high dose of violence. That being said, The Road’s description of The Unseen (“Imprisoned by a totalitarian regime and mercilessly tortured for unknown crimes, Wallace and Valdez live without hope of escape or release.”) did send up warning signals, but being that it was a Road Theatre production of a Craig Wright play, The Unseen seemed worth a look-see.
First off, the good news. The performances are uniformly outstanding and the design truly striking.
Darin Singleton does powerful work as Wallace, the more cynical and pragmatic of the two prisoners, despite dialog that is frequently more stilted than poetic or natural-sounding. LA Weekly Award winner Matt Kirkwood (unforgettable in Lady) is heartbreaking as Valdez, the more childlike and optimistic of the two. Both actors must make us believe that they are in tightly enclosed places and not able to see each other, even though Desma Murphy’s prison cell set has no walls surrounding the two detainees. Both must convince us that they have been imprisoned for years and that they have undergone horrendous systematic, daily torture. At this, both actors succeed.
As their jailer/torturer Smash, Douglas Dickerman is a commanding and darkly funny presence, and the actor has one hell of a gruesome monolog to deliver, which he does to stunning effect.
Murphy’s surrealistic set design is a perfect fit for Wright’s strange narrative and is matched by Jeremy Pivnick’s as always excellent lighting. Elizabeth Brand’s costumes (orange prison uniforms for Wallace and Valdez and a white one for Smash, looking like something out of a slaughterhouse) are just right for Wright’s tale.
Then there’s David B. Marling’s sound design, a cacophony of the loudest and most strident buzzes and clangs heard in The Road or likely any other L.A. theater—ever. These almost unbearably shrill noises, which are apparently there to announce the daily prison routine, would seem also designed to drive the prisoners stark, raving mad (if their daily doses of torture haven’t already done so). For audiences members, they can make sitting through The Unseen’s blessedly short running time (under seventy minutes) a nerve-wracking experience to say the least. It’s a great sound design, but not one I’d like to hear again.
Wright’s script is deliberately, frustratingly ambiguous. We do not know where this prison is, we do not know who the two prisoners are, we do not know why they are in prison. And though prison torture is a horrible reality of the world we live in, The Unseen takes place in some surreal Kafkaesque universe which makes it hard to believe or identify with any of the characters.
I admire and applaud the work of Singleton, Kirkwood, Douglas, the design team, and even Wright’s direction. This is a quality production, make no mistake about that, and I would guess that there will be theatergoers who will rave about both the play and the production. StageSceneLA readers with tastes similar to mine may have a different reaction.
The Road Theatre, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.
June 26, 2009
Photos: Matt Kaiser