Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Review - The Antipodes

Two of my very favorite recent(ish) theater experiences have been Annie Baker plays - John and The Flick.  So when Signature Theatre announced they would be doing Annie's latest play, The Antipodes, I pounced.  But I didn't pounce fast enough.  The only ticket I could get during the regular $30 run was for a Wednesday matinee.  My boss okayed my skipping out (on my own, this time) and off I went.

A few pre-show thoughts:  I saw one of the actors smoking outside the building before the show.  I have to admit my teeth gnash a bit when I see that.  Smoking just turns me off. Moving on.  I also had a pre-show chuckle when leaving the ladies room.  As I was drying my hands, the door opened and two ladies of a certain age walked in.  One exclaimed, "You're right, this IS nice!  This is like Bloomingdale's!'  So there you have it. Bloomingdale's is the Olympus of ladies rooms.  I would actually say that Saks has the best ladies room, but I digress.

My seat was in the balcony and the very nice usher seemed a little unsure of the seat numbers, but since I arrive at the theater so early, there was no rush to sit.  My row, however, stayed empty until very close to curtain.  I thought it was strange, since I had purchased the only ticket left for the performance.  Finally, at seconds before curtain, a group of four people climb over me to take their seats.  Four people for whom English was not their first language.  I don't know, call me silly, but I'm thinking that an Annie Baker play wouldn't be the first choice for non-English speakers. They never seemed to engage at all.  And, unfortunately, the gentleman directly next to me has perhaps never laundered the sweatshirt he was wearing.  You know the aroma I mean. Thankfully, I had worn a decorative scarf to the theater, and I had to wrap it around my head (and nose) to make it through the performance.  This wasn't easy, considering it was sweltering in the theater.

ANYWAY, after all that, may I say I enjoyed The Antipodes very much, though I admit that I didn't love it as much as I loved John (reminder of that review HERE) and The Flick (reminder of that review HERE).  With those plays, both of which were much longer in runtime, I could've stayed an additional three hours because I loved the worlds created so much.  With this play, which runs about two hours with no intermission, I enjoyed myself immensely and again appreciated the world and characters created, but I was ready for the play to be over when it ended, and I didn't feel the same impulse to wish the play were longer.  I don't think that's necessarily a criticism, just a comment on the difference in my response to this play.

photo credit: Sara Krulwich
The Antipodes takes place in a nondescript conference room and we rather quickly discover that this is some kind of writers room, either for tv or film or something.  The showrunner/head writer begins a seemingly artsy fartsy speech about about making something new and original, that encourages empathy and changes the world.  But then he ends his speech with, "...and we can make a shitload of money."  You laugh and you realize that you're probably going to be continually off-balance, that there are probably going to be two sides to every story, lots of truthtelling, lots of lies, and lots of ideas about what storytelling really is, should be, and maybe isn't. The play, as it unfolds, is a series of brainstorming sessions, where the writers are telling stories about their real lives (or are they?) in order to be inspired to write their next project.

As I've repeated a copious number of times, I'm endlessly fascinated by plays that deal with art/artists/writers, and The Antipodes is no exception.  There was so much truth and humor in the interaction between the writers - the jockeying for position, the latent (or not so latent) misogyny and racism, the egotism.  I have to say I had one of the biggest belly laughs of the season at one line about writers, it was just so unexpected, true and funny.  But there was also a tangible sense of unease in the air, as the show started to get ever more abstract and strange.  Ideas weren't coming, the showrunner kept disappearing, the stories kept getting more surreal and possibly even primal.  It was all fascinating to me.  

What are the responsibilities of the storytellers in times of turmoil?  The play never mentions current events, but of course the idea of this unsettled time needing storytellers even more is pervasive.  The stories the characters tell are truthful, quirky, sometimes a little TMI, and more than once, surprisingly devastating.  The character's story about his biggest regret, and his explanation afterward, was truly touching, as was the aftermath.

The physical production is terrific - the set is completely authentic, and put together in such a way that everyone was visible to the audience all around them throughout the performance.  The lights and sound were good, and there were some directorial touches, or maybe even special effects, that I just cannot figure out.  The play takes place over several months, and occasionally take out cartons of food would just appear.  And, without spoilers, let's just say the knitting has a spectacular conclusion.

photo credit: Joan Marcus
The cast was also spectacular, working as a unit, yet each taking their moment in the spotlight and running with it. Annie is so expert at creating realistic people with just a few brush strokes, and these actors build on those brush strokes beautifully.  I always enjoy Josh Hamilton's work, and his character was especially enigmatic to me, and he added a lot of layers.  I also enjoy Danny Mastrogiorgio and one of his personal stories was really perfectly performed.  Each actor and character contributed to the whole and created an atmosphere of humor (I laughed a lot during the show) and an atmosphere of desperation, which a lot of conference rooms, whether filled with writers or not, is built on.

I did notice that one cast member was getting a little flummoxed by two particularly crazy audience members though - there was one gal who kept dropping her metal water bottle onto the concrete floor.  I'm not sure if she was clumsy, or bored, but it was annoying.  This one cast member would swivel his head her way whenever it dropped.  On the other side of the theater was a woman who talked throughout the performance in her outdoor voice.  It was always about the play, which was good, I guess, but it was rather annoying.  No one shushed her (maybe we all had it in the back of our minds that she could be part of the play?), and she just laughed and carried on about whatever struck her fancy onstage.  This behavior also got a head-swivel by a particular cast member.  It's the first time, in a long time, that I noticed an actor getting a little rattled by outside forces. I know we're pretty close to the stage, but still.  I'm relatively sure the head swivels aren't part of his performance.  But I hope he wasn't bothered too much - I liked the play enough that I was annoyed, but not distracted by the crazy people.  Or Mr. Smelly next to me, who also did not enjoy himself at all.

I highly recommend The Antipodes and I really applaud Annie Baker for trying new things, but also knowing what she does best and sticking to it.  Those are admirable qualities.  I can't wait for her third piece at Signature and the worlds she creates next...

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