BWW Reviews: Political Satire Triumphs in Studio's EDGAR AND ANNABEL
EDGAR AND ANNABEL by Sam Holcroft, now making its US Premiere at Studio Theatre's 2nd Stage as the kick-off of its New British Invasion series, evokes as many meanings and sub-meanings as this wildly funny political satire can bear.
At one metaphorical level, EDGAR AND ANNABEL is a clever, comical play on the meaning of a "cell." As in "cell: the smallest structural and functional unit of an organism." Or "cell: a small group forming a nucleus of political activity, typically a secret, subversive one." Or, "cell: a small room in which a prisoner is locked up or a monk or nun [or undercover insurgent] sleeps." Or even, "cell: the local area covered by one of the short-range transmitters in a cellular telephone system."
But nothing in this play is ever just one thing. You get my drift.
Edgar and Annabel are the cover characters for two members of an underground cell of resistance who safeguard their safe-house, despite constant audio surveillance, through strict adherence to an elaborate "script." They and their compatriots comprise the Opposition to an all-controlling, Eastern-Bloc-like police-state. Like good idealists, offstage the Opposition is still working on its Plan A--electoral victory---working within the system, as it were.
On the ceiling of the safehouse are multiple listening devices---standard equipment, we gather, for all domiciles in the omnipresent, oppressive national security state of the play---that hear all and crush all resistance.
This safehouse, however, also holds the explosives and detonating devices for the Opposition's Plan B---strategic attack of military targets---should Plan A fail. The insurgents' opposition party, however, is polling at a measly 28%, which, in parliamentary democracy may hold promise though in American democracy, it is a paltry number indeed.
As the play opens Annabel (aka Marianne) played with a true grit and determination that contrasts marvelously with her girl-next-door good looks by Emily Kester, has been co-habitating with her Edgar, (aka Carl), with whom she had a cozy relationship. Carl, however, has been disappeared by the secret police, and a new Edgar (aka Nick) has taken his place. Played with grace and authentic, tactical zeal by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, the new Edgar, an ex-Army explosive expert, arrives scripts in hand for their unrehearsed transition scene as "Edgar" and "Annabel."
Annabel, at first taken aback and suspicious, must step seamlessly into this new arrangement. The audio surveillance equipment, we learn, digitally deconstructs all dialogue, searching for changes in speech patterns or the emotional ambience between them. Any deviations from the norms set by the previous Edgar and Annabel and their cover could be blown and the safe house compromised. And so Annabel and her new Edgar chit chat falteringly about their dinner of chicken, er..fish, er...chicken, er..fish, all to great comic effect.
The entire play is thus scripted, literally, tasking the actors with the extraordinary challenge of cold-reading lines while still conveying the nuance and subtext and personalities of their "real" characters. Guided by Director Holly Twyford, the cast succeeds terrifically, and this theatrical conceit catapults the play into solid absurdist terrain.
Anchoring this false reality is also the set by scenic designer Debra Booth. It is itself a kind of cell, a perfect manifestation of this surveillance-infested world. A modular box elevated on legs and filled with no-frills Ikea units, the set is a self-contained box, a kind of bright-white diorama of the invented reality playing out inside.
Their introduction made, Annabel and Edgar soon rendezvous with Miller, their steely handler, revolutionary commander, and author of the ubiquitous scripts that chart their every interaction. Played to perfection by Lisa Hodsoll, Miller chastises them for their unconvincing erotic sounds but reluctantly bends to their complaints about having to feign passion for each other. Miller agrees to script a shift in the power dynamics of their relationship; Edgar will get laid off, Annabel will get promoted, and all the sex they're supposed to be having will cease altogether. Problem solved.
Until, that is, Edgar and Annabel learn that other members of their cell have been apprehended. They realize that Plan A is doomed, and they instantly shift into Plan B.
What follows is truly the heart of this unflinching political satire. Two other young insurgents, Tara and Marc, played with fabulous commitment and deadpan comic sensibilities by Lauren E. Banks and Jacob Yeh, arrive for a presumed dinner and karaoke party. In a master stroke of comic absurdism reminiscent of the great Italian actor-playwrights Dario Fo and Franca Rama, playwright Holcroft has these four insurgents build their homemade bomb through a frenetic assembly-line process while alternately crooning out pop songs in a couples' contest on the karaoke machine. The scene is both hysterical and telling, with insipid pop culture tunes as the ultimate cover for deadly-serious sedition.