BWW Review: THE ANTIPODES Is Absurdly Fabulous At Road Less Traveled Productions
There are as many forms of entertainments as there are concepts. Expressing one's point of view can be difficult and when you put nine people in the same room and ask them to brainstorm for the next best idea for a film script, there are bound to be way too many or too few concepts that work. Playwright Annie Baker has penned her most recent play, THE ANTIPODES, using this idea as a construct for a present day "theatre of the absurd" that hasn't been seen Ionesco's THE BALD SOPRANO. Happily Buffalo's Road Less Traveled Productions is presenting Baker's play in a knockout evening of theatre with some of the best ensemble acting you will ever encounter.
Stage and screen veteran Sean Cullen leads the band as Sandy, a successful movie producer who has assembled his best creative team, along with some new comers, to develop a Hollywood hit. He states the room is a safe place, no idea is too outlandish or far fetched, and everyone is to bare their soul with personal stories as a spring board for new ideas. In placing the action here, Baker has opened up as a pandora's box for what topics can be discussed. First sexual experiences, life's biggest regrets, relationship issues pave the way for more existential concepts. What "time" truly is and how is it measured, is time horizontal or vertical, or spiral? Should gorgons or elves be in the story? You get the idea, anything goes. Each cast member presents themselves with full engagement, playing in perfect sync with the others.
There is the obligatory first scene of introductions, and soon we are off to the races. Dave Hayes is Dave, one of the veterans of the group, fully aware of the formula that produces a hit. Hayes is cocky and outrageous as he incessantly chews on a toothpick, rolling his eyes at ideas that seem stupid to him. Ricky Needham is the young newbie Josh, desperate to fit in, but a little too "out there" for some of the group. His concept of time was perplexingly hilarious in his delivery. John Hurley earned great laughs as Danny M1, especially as he recalled one of the most embarrassing sexual escapades probably ever heard on the stage.
Greg Howse is great as Adam, full of nervous energy, probably suffering from ADHD. He stretches, bends, rolls water bottles around and then has the most far fetched story idea just as the group is about to throw in the towel. David Marciniak is Danny M2, a man who is uncomfortable in his own skin. He gives a heartfelt performance of a story when working on a chicken farm, that seems fascinating, until it's ridiculous conclusion. Marciniak draws you in with his story telling, as do all the cast members.
Adam Yellen is Brian, Sandy's right hand man and scribe for every word that is said in the room. Yellen is quirky and perfect as the computer geek that mostly fades into the background. But then he is given the juicy and most absurd bits, as he extemporaneously attempts to construct a new language on his dry erase board....write a theme, then rewrite it phonetically, then erase letters you don't like. This leads to the full cast chanting this gibberish phrase, like a team building exercise to summon creativity, while also serving no other purpose than to incite laughter from the audience.
In typical Hollywood fashion, there is a paucity of women involved in this creative process. The lone female is Eleanor, played convincingly by Kristen Tripp Kelley. She represents goodness, wholesome values and healthy food choices, while generously shares her probiotics with the group! Ultimately, she is onto Sandy. His misogynistic tendencies come to the forefront, as he describes how much he hates women in the room and tells of another woman who almost derailed the process in the past.
Cassie Cameron is Sandy, the office administrative assistant. Always there for lunch orders, drinks, and to cover her boss's behind whenever he needs a good excuse. But she is asked to join the group one day to relate a gruesome childhood story. Cameron sucks the audience in with her wide eyes and vocal inflections. She takes full command of the stage, then flits back to her office. She has star power.
The brilliance of this ensemble comes as each of their stories sucks the viewer into trying to process how this could be made into a movie. We all have seen esoteric films, thrillers with plot twists, and aliens that dominate the world. Somehow Ms. Baker has fashioned a play that while being absurd, also has the power to make an audience decide if the ideas and stories are ridiculous or brilliant. And given such devices, a man stripping his shirt off and performing interpretive dance as he contemplates a myriad of story types, is right at home.
Director Scott Behrend has ensured that the confines of the same room month after month is palpable. Individual habits, quirks and postures make for interest among the cast. When everyone must brainstorm and speak on top of the other, it feels liked organized chaos. Mr. Cullen does a fine job anchoring the group, such that when he is missing, the ideas become more frayed. Upon his return, the writing is on the wall for the group, as little has been accomplished. Cullen unravels before our eyes, and you understand how difficult the gestation of a new script must be.
Set design by Lynne Koscielniak fits the theatre like a glove, with everything needed in a conference room, plus plenty of space for the cast to roam as they contemplate their ideas. With clever light changes (by John Rickus) and sound cues (by Katie Menke) the transitions from hours to days to new sessions play out seamlessly.
Baker has used the telling and retelling of life's stories and personal histories to fully engage the audience. The inherent comedy of some of the ridiculous stories serves to entertain, but also can be head scratching. Just when is something too absurd or too outlandish? Is an incomprehensible situation fodder for brilliance? Judging by the audience response, the subject matter certainly is enough to leave the theatre with an appreciation for the creative process, all the while wondering if they all are just a group of neurotic idiots. You decide.
THE ANTIPODES is being presented by Buffalo's Road Less Traveled Theater at 456 Main St through February 9, 2020. Visit roadlesstraveledproductions.org for more information.