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Review: THE UNSEEN at Playground630

A not-to-be-missed play at PFW's Studio Theatre

Playground 630 is certainly filling Fort Wayne's need for thought-provoking dramatic works with their production of THE UNSEEN by Craig Wright, directed by Chance Parker and running through June 19th at PFW's Studio Theatre.

The play follows two men, Mr. Wallace (Austin Berger) and Mr. Valdez (Chase Francis), who have both been imprisoned for a decade and tortured for unknown crimes. They can't see into each other's cells and have never met face-to-face, but they can still communicate, passing the time through philosophizing, daydreaming, and playing word games. Only occasionally do they speak with Mr. Smeija or "Smash," the prison guard and their torturer, who has his own set of mental monsters to face. However, the monotony of the two prisoner's daily lives is suddenly broken up by two things- a mysterious prisoner who seems to only communicate through tapping and scratching, and the rare potential hope of an escape from the prison.

Wallace (Austin Berger) and Valdez (Chase Francis) in Playground630's THE UNSEEN.
Wallace (Austin Berger) and Valdez (Chase Francis) in Playgroun630's THE UNSEEN

For all its heavy subject matter, the play still offers a surprising number of laughs primarily due to the comedic timing of the three actors. As the show progresses, Berger's Wallace- an older, quick-witted man focused on practical scientific deduction- becomes seemingly exasperated by the more youthful naivety and emotional expression of Francis's Valdez. The age difference between the two actors works well to highlight their juxtaposition of characteristics. But despite their differing points of view, they each have something new to offer the other. The banter back-and-forth between Wallace and Valdez drives the play, and these two actors feed incredibly well off each other's energy to the point where, as an audience member, I felt like the show absolutely flew by.

The tight script is also one of the main reasons that director Chance Parker was drawn to this show in the first place, calling the play a "well-structured piece" and noting that because "everything means something, there is no fat that needs trimmed so to speak... It's funny but it's not a farce, it's gut wrenching but it's not shocking for the sake of it, and it's philosophical but not in a way that is alienating."

The set design places Wallace and Valdez on each half of the stage, their cell walls outlined by grey concrete bricks on each half of the stage. Although there's no physical wall constructed between them, the actors don't make eye contact, a choice which helps emphasize their voices as the only connection between them. Just like the prisoners don't know who's in the prison or how far the prison stretches, neither do we as the audience. Are these the only two prisoners? Who knows. We only know what they know and discuss in their bare cells, and the stark production design helps to emphasize that feeling of desolate isolation and lack of information.

Mr. Smeija (Mike Adams) chats with the prisoners.
Mr. Smeija (Mike Adams) chats with the prisoners.

The Studio Theatre's small black box space also worked well when it came to the sound quality, as their voices bounced off the walls and echoed much like they would, I imagine, in an actual prison. The actors' profoundly echoing voices when they call out for the attention of the prison guard, or the mysterious prisoner, or even each other, especially help cultivate the mood of bleak, seemingly never-ending solitude.

Most importantly, THE UNSEEN is a play that inspires you to think, and this production does a stunning job of balancing the lighter comedic moments with heavy-hitting questions about the nature of suffering and human connection. "We're living in times where many around us desperately cling to scraps of faith and hope," says Parker. "Some people rely on reason and well thought out logical processes while others rely on gut feeling and faith, oftentimes creating their own realities that they would like to live in. I think in the past several years everybody who sees this play can point to a strongly held personal belief that they have had challenged. The journey that these characters go on will, I hope, provide a philosophically fulfilling and dramatically interesting way to process those challenges."

Wallace (Austin Berger) making calculations.
Wallace (Austin Berger) making calculations.

Performances for June 10th-12th have been cancelled due to circumstances out of their control, but THE UNSEEN is playing at PFW Studio Theatre the following Friday and Saturday, June 17th and 18th, at 7:30 pm and on Sunday, June 19th at 2 pm. To reach the theater, enter campus off Coliseum Road and follow the directions to Kettler Hall. The show runs for two hours including the intermission and includes graphic descriptions of intense violence, so young children are not recommended. All tickets are $20 (cash only), and they can be reserved in advance by calling 260-416-4461. Tickets are also available for purchase with cash at the door until limited seating capacity is reached.

This is Playground630's second offering, the company recently having been started by longtime theatre director and veteran actor Thom Hofrichter, formerly of First Presbyterian Theatre. About his own involvement with Playground630, Chance Parker says, "I've known Thom Hofrichter for several years now and this is the third time he has trusted me to direct a play for him. I enjoy working with him and we both tend to agree on what kind of theatre we want to see in Fort Wayne. When he told me that he was working on a company with a bent towards smaller, contemporary works of this style I knew it was going to be something special."

Playground 630 is a company-in-residence at PFW's College of Visual and Performing Arts.

Poster design by Diana Laudeman. Photo credit to Chance Parker.

**Again, please note that the final weekend of performances of THE UNSEEN will be June 17th-June 19th!

Playground630's poster for The Unseen

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