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Review: Syracuse Stage Presents a Virtual Streaming Production of ANNAPURNA

The dialogue rolls and recoils, snaps and shudders, bubbles and bounces, and then rests languidly. It’s not Albee, but it suffices, and convinces.

Review: Syracuse Stage Presents a Virtual Streaming Production of ANNAPURNA
L-R Dawn Stern and Stephan Wolfert in Syracuse Stage's streaming production of Annapurna.
Photo courtesy of the production

On June 3, 1950 the French mountaineer Maurice Herzog stood on the impossibly high summit of Annapurna I - and dropped his gloves into the yawning chasm below. Descending barehanded, he soon lost his fingers to frostbite; most of them were eventually amputated. He thus became the patron saint of all who have, with a single act, a single mistake, ruined their lives.

One of those is Ulysses (Stephan Wolfert), who as we first see him is frying sausage naked but for a greasy apron and a pair of slippers. And an oxygen tank. He is staring at his ex-wife Emma (Dawn Stern), returned to his life after an absence of twenty years. "Holy crap," he says.

Cowardly Ulysses was once a poet of note; a professor of English, husband and father. His odyssey has taken him to a battered trailer in a miserable trailer camp in Paonia, Colorado. Mount Gunnison is in the distance, but it is close enough for Ulysses to be able to watch the tourists as they try to scale its peak, full of confidence until their confidence drains and they need help climbing back down.

He does not remember the night Emma left with his son. He remembers only the aftermath : the divorce papers, served eight weeks later; the unanswered letters; the phone calls to Emma's mother that cut off as soon as he spoke.

In Sharr White's two-hander currently available in filmic form at Syracuse Stage, the present is miserable and the future, at least for Ulysses, is hopelessly bleak. (This is no spoiler; it is obvious within the first five minutes that he is dying of COPD.) Thus the business of the play is excavating the past. The superficial problem for Ulysses is the drink - a devil he finally shed, seven years ago - but his more substantial problem is a stubborn refusal to acknowledge reality when it clashes with what he thinks is right.

What do I mean? Some time before the play opens, Ulysses bought some sausage at the Dollar Store (the Dollar Store!) By the time he got back to his trailer the bag was bloated. He had bought some bad sausage, but rather than throw it out (or asking for his dollar back) he keeps it in his mini-fridge, possibly hoping that a miracle would make the sausage edible again. When Emma opens the fridge by mistake, the toxic odor sickens her.

The big narrative question is why Emma left him in such an explosive and final way, but it's no secret why she has returned: their son, who doesn't remember his father, considers him a hero and has figured out where he lives. He's coming, and Emma is doing what she can to make Ulysses presentable to him.

The dialogue rolls and recoils, snaps and shudders, bubbles and bounces, and then rests languidly. It's not Albee, but it suffices, and convinces. These are two people who know each other, and can get inside each other's emotional crevices, notwithstanding the long time apart. Wolfert and Stern, who are husband and wife IRL, are at every moment truthful on stage, and they are never more convincing than when they are talking on top of each other, the words made indistinct but the rage and longing and frustration plain as day. Even their physical presentations reflect the personalities of the characters they play. Wolfert's Ulysses is a symphony of disarray, like a lush garden gone to seed, with mane and beard, snow-white, looking as though neither razor nor scissors intruded these past five years. Stern's Emma is so coiled that even the ringlets on her head appear ready to pounce at the right provocation.

It is a basic storytelling convention to have a character seek an objective unsuccessfully twice before achieving it, and White honors that convention with impressive regularity. Ulysses responds to important questions with a wisecrack; Emma stonewalls and changes the subject. In a story like this, where the only possible objective is to find out what happened before, you might find the frequent repetition of this trope a little tedious. Fortunately, Wolfert and Stern are so committed to the text, and - there's no other way to put this - so good at this that there's a pretty decent chance that you'll buy into it anyway.

Theater has had a hard go of it during this plague, and the only choice left to practitioners and artists is to reduce this most human-scaled of arts to the size of your laptop. If this is the choice, though, Annapurna is a good play to do it with. It has two actors and but a single set; Syracuse Stage had the additional good fortune of finding two actors who were already sharing space and, as an added bonus, received permission to shoot the play in their house. Director Robert Hupp and video director Katherine Freer supplement the scenery with some outdoor shots, which may have been from stock, but the indoor and outdoor scenes move seamlessly from one to another. There is some music, discordant and sweet, at the beginning of the play which presages the sweet discordancy which is Ulysses and Emma together. Jacqueline R. Herter did the sound design. Overall, the technical is elite; you will have difficulty distinguishing Annapurna from a film you might see on Netflix, or wherever.

Bob Dylan once wrote (in "It's All Right, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)") that "he not busy being born is busy dying." In the sense he meant it, Ulysses and Emma are busy dying for the ninety minutes' traffic of our stage, trying to find the one thing missing in a relationship which is finished in every other way: meaning. Do they find it? You'll have to watch - by clicking here or calling 315.443.3275.

Running Time: 90 minutes

Annapurna, by Sharr White, directed by Robert Hupp. Featuring Stephan Wolfert and Dawn Stern. Video design and production editor: Katherine Freer. Sound design: Jacqueline R. Herter. Costume designer: Lux Haac. Set decoration: Mara Tunnicliff. Wig and wardrobe supervisor: Jaylene Ogle. Dramaturgical research: Wallis Dean. Video, lighting and sound technician Sydney E. Curran. Stage manager: Stuart Plymesser. Produced by Syracuse Stage.

From This Author - Timothy Treanor

Tim Treanor is a longtime critic for the recently-closed website DC Theatre Scene, where he wrote more than 700 reviews. He is a 2011 graduate of the Eugene O'Neill National Critics Institute and... (read more about this author)

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