Monday, January 24, 2011
Theater review: Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) at Addison Theatre Center
What makes the show so vastly entertaining is that you don't know from one second to the next what is going to happen.
Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant!
Audiences sometimes are apprehensive about seeing a play with only one actor. They may asks themselves: Is it a stand-up routine? Performance art? A one man show? How can there be dramatic tension with a single actor on stage? Rest assured that when you go see Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) by Will Eno (presented by Second Thought Theatre at Addison Theatre Center through January 29) you will have the experience of watching a fully realized play.
So what is it about? It is about a man grappling with who he has become. We first meet Thomas Pain in the dark. Literally. The play starts with him on stage in pitch black attempting to light a cigarette. We see the flashes from the lighter. He doesn't succeed. He proceeds to talk to us in pitch black. This theatrical device has been used in the past to help the audience really focus on the words of the play and get the audiences imagination to open up.
Playwright Eno takes it a step further; he lets us sit in the dark for an uncomfortably long time, which the character Thomas Pain acknowledges. It is unpleasant, and that exactly what Thomas Pain wants us to feel. Thomas Pain wants us the audience to face the fact that life frequently hands us discomforts and disappointments. By using this device the message comes across loud and clear.
The lights do go up eventually and it is then that we discover that we as the audience are actually the second character in this play's narrative. Thomas Pain rambles on about his personal thoughts peppered with anecdotes of his life, he talks about his own philosophy, and tells jokes. But all of it is disjointed.
Seldom is a story fully told, because in fact life as a narrative only ends upon death, and Thomas Pain is still very much alive as we are as audience members. He asks us, the audience, our thoughts, or rhetorical questions, yet seldom ever does he allow us to answer. It sounds as if this would be a frustrating experience but it isn't because it's done with much verve and humor.
He also breaks down the fourth wall and steps into the audience. I found myself having a "stare off" with him inches from my face. He yelled at a lady sitting across from me. He made a man get out of his seat. I ended up getting dragged on stage and put on display for a supposed magic trick only to be left alone with nothing to do for about eight minutes.
What makes the show so vastly entertaining is that you don't know from one second to the next what is going to happen. Yet through the chaos a very strong narrative develops. You will laugh till you suddenly realize you are on the precipice of an emotional cliff with a devastating fall.
In order to succeed whoever plays Thomas Pain must do so with absolute conviction. He must be able to control the audience so the audience doesn't get out of hand. He must also go through a roller coaster of emotions and make us care for him, though he wouldn't be someone to be fun to hang around with since he is such a negative individual. Steven Michael Walters more than meets the challenge.
He is placed on a blank stage -- the only elements on it are a chair that matches the ones we the audience sits in, an enormous dictionary and a glass of fizzy water -- and he is dressed in a black suit that could use a cleaning and a white shirt. He is barefoot. This is as minimalist a set as you can get. The costumer, the lighting, and the props designer do an excellent job of keeping the focus on him. There is nothing to divert the eye, so he must at every second of the play keep your attention; there is nothing to hide behind. The only shifts that occur happen with lighting and they serve to articulate or highlight some of his musings; they aren't done to distract or entertain the eye.
Director Matthew Grey used this bare space quite well. He doesn't over block the play, but he makes sure Mr. Walters moves around enough so as to keep the audiences' eye entertained. He also uses different tempos in movement and in Mr. Walter's scenes so as to keep the pace interesting, varied and fluid.
Mr. Walters bravura performance is something to be reckoned with. His manic delivery is never tiring for he is able to modulate it so that it isn't one note. Are we seeing Mr. Walters or Thomas Pain? Is he acting? Thomas so inhabits his persona that it is difficult to tell.
After the play there is a talk back with the audience, something that Second Thought Theatre does after every play. Since the play clocks in a little over an hour, and they highly encouraged the audience to participate, I opted to stay. I wanted to see how different Mr. Walters was from the character. Mr. Walters came out to talk to the audience and get feedback. He was still Thomas Pain, but after about five minutes the character he portrayed slowly left his body, his voice, and he became the actor. It's also interesting to note the vastly different reactions the audience had to the whole evening. This talk back really helps complete the full experience.
Do yourself a favor and go see this brilliant Pulitzer Prize finalist play. This is a must if you want to experience great theatre on an intimate level.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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