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Intoxicating On The Verge at Rep Stage

It seemed an unlikely concept: whip up an evening of delight largely on the strength of a love of modern slang and consumer culture. Yet that was the task playwright Eric Overmyer set himself with On the Verge: or The Geography of Yearning, which premiered in 1985 at Baltimore's Center Stage. Contrary to all expectation this froth of logophilia (an appropriate metaphor, since eggbeaters help structure the action) works just fine, as audiences can see in a dazzling new production of this regional theater classic at Howard County's Rep Stage.

Overmyer's device for opening our eyes to the sheer excitement of Chicklets and Jacuzzis and Cool Whip and to the felicity of expressions like "so long" and "I like Ike" and neologisms like "software" is to reintroduce us to them through the eyes of characters who come from a world without them, namely the past. Overmyer's naifs in this slangy, consumeristic world are three explorers who set out in the 1890s for the land of Terra Incognita, and soon find themselves traversing not only jungles and snowy fields but also decades.

Interestingly and probably tellingly, these explorers mimic the conventional stereotype of the Victorian explorer (equipped with pith helmets and encouraged by a geographical society), except that they are female. While the explorers history recognizes are overwhelmingly male, it would stand to reason that women in that far less emancipated Victorian era would greet with particular delight the new vocabulary and culture the 20th Century had to offer. So women are entirely the appropriate time travelers for Overmyer's purposes. Their glee is more calculated to become infectious.

Because Overmyer shamelessly exploits big set pieces with big set elements and large infusions of props to wow the audience, and it would be a shame to spoil the surprises for any newbies who read this, I'll simply say that our first glimpse of the three explorers is of them suspended in a gaudily-realized balloon gondola, and it carries on from there.

Hence, though it is rare to accord first recognition in a review to the designers, in this instance, let me start with a tip of the hat to Richard Montgomery's sets, Dan Covey's lighting, Liza Davies' property design, and Denise Umaland's costumes, without which this champagne flute of a show would seem flat indeed.

I am not sure whether the differentiation of our three heroines' personalities was intended to emerge from very little to a great deal as the future begins to unfold for them, but that is the effect. Initially, they seem uniform in their diction, their long beige skirts and sand-colored helmets, but we learn, after a while, that Mary (Leigh Jameson) is anthropologically-minded and the most intrepid, that Alex (Tiffany Fillmore) is given to shrieking with delight as she "osmoses" what to her are neologisms (her discovery of Burma Shave jingles is itself a delight to watch), and that Fanny (Natasha Staley) is struggling with temporal homesickness, missing her husband and then gradually surrendering to the joys of a life in a world without him after learning of his death. (Fanny also seems to metamorphose from a strait-laced post-Civil War Republican into a Sinatra-era voluptuary before our eyes.)

Duane Boutté plays all the people the travelers encounter, which calls for quite a range: cannibal channeling an Alsatian (human, not canine) he ate, incrutable Asian fortune-telling lady, teen gas pump jockey, and lounge lizard - among others. This is sketch comedy at its most enjoyable.

Eventually, in 1955, the traveling party is sundered, with two electing to stay behind, and one, the one who constantly proclaims that they are "on the verge," continuing on. The resulting note of regret infusing the end of the play is almost wrong. Yet the pursuit of the ever-receding "verge" is important, is representative of something quintessentially human. You can't have explorations without partings, Overmyer seems to be saying, any more than you could reach the era of Cool Whip without giving up Victorian cuisine and the world of which it was a part. And if one could choose one's era, as can these explorers, one would have to reject most others - living seriatim through only those few eras an ordinary lifespan allows one to experience with the normal passage of time. The tradeoff is that one who fares forward continues to stand "on the verge," and, in the world of the play, that may be a tradeoff well worth the making.

It is, of course, froth. In the list of neologisms and cultural reference points that the women "osmose," there is no Sarajevo, no Auschwitz, no Hiroshima, no Dealey Plaza or AIDS. Their premonitions of things to come include only the wonders, not the things that go bump in the night. Yet a love letter to modernity is under no obligations to be balanced in its approach. Pure Cool Whip too is good, from time to time. And that is the way Jackson Phippin, the director, has served it up to us, as a long dessert. And we, like diners at such a moment, must simply not ask too many questions, and simply give ourselves over to the experience.

Phippin was also at the helm of the Center Stage premiere, which I saw. I infinitely more enjoyed this staging, and I'm trying to decide why. This production looks much like the one I remember. Yet I came out of that one feeling as if something had not "taken." Here, I was grinning from ear to ear almost all the way through. Maybe practice makes perfect. And maybe the fact that Rep is not a big establishment icon like Center Stage, that the audience was smaller and more intimate, that the actresses were more spontaneous if less polished, all helped as well.

Whatever the reason, I would recommend this production even to those who, like me, were kind of turned off by the 1985 staging. It is almost as close to unalloyed pleasure as a P.G. Wodehouse story, a logophile's happy dream, done with spectacle and verve.

On the Verge or The Geography of Yearning

April 14 to May 2 at Rep Stage, Howard Community College, 10901 Litttle Patuxent Parkway 20144. Tickets $16 to $20. 410-772-4900.


Photo Credit: Stan Barouh

Stan Barouh.

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