Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Theater review: The Four of Us at Addison Theatre Center
A risky piece that challenges our sensibilities and causes us to question our assumptions about life.
Give artists an audience, let them take Best of the Loop 2012 honors at WaterTower's Out of the Loop Festival and what do they do? If it's Jason and Becca Johnson-Spinos they create a new production company. Outcry Theatre opens their first commercial production at Addison Theatre Center and what do they start with? Itamar Moses' The Four of Us (playing through June 17). Edgy, bold, in-your-face honesty about real life, Outcry begins its life with a play that has only two actors. And it's kind of exciting.
A production with only two actors puts a lot of pressure on them and their director, Becca Johnson-Spinos. They must fill the space with story-telling mastery and become a presence large enough to keep the audience engaged for two hours. This director achieves that.
The Four of Us is a story about a guy who struggles to become a successful playwright as he watches his best friend score with his first novel. There are lots of chances for envy, jealousy and manipulation, always interesting theater.
Itamar Moses is himself a successful playwright, though 99% of theater patrons never heard of him. Aside from The Four of Us, you might have heard of Bach at Leipzig, Outrage, or Celebrity Row. If you're into musical theater then Reality! or Fortress of Solitude comes to mind. Don't follow Broadway? Perhaps you've heard of Men of a Certain Age or Boardwalk Empire, both recent popular TV series for which he has written scripts. Moses has a Bachelor's from Yale and MFA from NYU and he taught writing at both. This indicates a certain success. So is this play about him?
Benjamin writes his first novel and jumps to the top of the literary world. His best friend David is the typical struggling playwright trying to find an audience for his work. He loves the idea of success for his best friend yet Benjamin's success strikes deeply into David's own fragile dreams.
Some themes are obvious - youthful dreams versus the reality of adulthood, the struggle between passion to succeed and need for love, the struggle between suffering for your art and surrendering to commercial success. There is an underlying question of gay-ness between the friends as they both struggle with their own hetero relationships and somehow keep finding each other. Regardless of sexuality, this play is a love story. All other themes are outward signs of the struggle two best friends encounter while trying to maintain their long friendship.
That I understood these themes is a result of good direction and acting. The script seems disjointed, suggesting flashback, flash-forward, flash to the middle, back and forth, suddenly seeming to indicate events may have been imagined. It's hard to tell what's real and imagined because the transitions between scenes are unclear. But the director places the scenes into the hands of two young actors, empowers them to play the text physically and emotionally, and they show an arc for each character that tells us there was growth and maturity. Perhaps the time line of the story is not as important as the emotional journey of the characters.
The black-box theater is stark, really a black box. A large projection screen, a few pieces of furniture and minimal lighting provide a backdrop to the story. Becca Johnson-Spinos removes any impediment to focus on the actors. Furniture pieces are more like props the actors use rather than pieces in a set. Scene changes are lit by the large projection screen to keep interest as the actors shift in time and space, moving pieces in purposeful choreography. Lights illuminate only what needs to be seen. Sound, consisting of musical numbers by Denton-based band Seryn, both underscore some scenes and become part of the story.
Projections on the big screen are an important part of this play. The screen show includes moving Polaroids of the guys moving through daily life, along with a few scenic backgrounds suggesting location, in visually-engaging video sequences. This design by Jason Johnson-Spinos and Wade McDonald maintains a constant movement of visual elements, keeping the story flowing and audience focused.
Benjamin is acted by Chris Ramirez with a slightly aloof devil-may-care style of a twenty-something dude caught in the ringer of commercial success, until he encounters his own struggle for success where he seems far less assured. Duc Nguyen plays David, the struggling playwright who feels the pressure to succeed, fighting the establishment until he feels his own moment of success and falls into that familiar smugness that inhabits successful artists. Ramirez and Nguyen are youthful, energetic, refreshingly physical and grounded to the stage. They engage with each other and the audiences comfortably so that their characters are easy to love, hate, and empathize with as they fight their self-reflections. Their crisp dialog keeps the story moving and the audience caught in their life choices. We are watching two best friends trying hard in spite of the odds against them.
This play does have extreme adult language and highly suggestive content that could get uncomfortable for some, but not any more than these characters would encounter at their age. Most young adults will see nothing shocking. The Four of Us is an engaging piece of work, both in its content and its production. Acting is superb and direction by this production team presents this subject well.
Theater in DFW flourishes. Outcry Theatre is evidence. When many other companies produce outstanding work and thrive in their own communities, there's room for an upstart young company to enter the market, produce a risky piece that challenges our sensibilities and causes us to question our assumptions about life. Outcry wants to "draw young adults to the theater as both audience members and participants." They've done that with The Four of Us. Give this group a chance. See this production. And celebrate good theater.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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