BWW Review: EAR at Space 55
According to Space 55's website:
Loosely inspired by the life of Van Gogh, EAR is a story as old as time. A boy loves a girl. To prove he loves the girl, the boy gives her a gift. A BIG gift. The kind you can't take back. And now the boy is in a mental hospital, at the mercy of a doctor who's even crazier than he is. And the girl? Well, she's starting to hear things, WEIRD things, late at night. It's an all-American story about love, insanity, auditory phenomena, experimental therapy, cannibalism, and talking birds.
All that is true. It really is. And more. Of course. Because theatre is an experiential thing. You can't hear about it or read it into your bones - you have to be there.
Directed by Dennis Frederick, Ashley Naftule's new play, Ear, is a witty, twisted exercise in magical realism.
Naftule's script is hilarious at times, very sick often, and much of the writing rises to epic levels. It's a blast.
Space 55 sits in a storefront in Phoenix and will soon move to a different one (roughly around Halloween), so this review won't wax on about the specifics of the room. What's immediately apparent (and what sets this critic's heart thumping) is that it's a classic storefront theatre. It's got hand-painted art all over it. It's got one charming public toilet, a few risers and a few chairs. It's intimate as hell. It's gritty and immediate - we never forget we're in a theatre - which is awesome. It's got a fiercely committed ensemble and the best refreshments your donation dollar can buy that can fit in a mini-fridge behind a combination box office and bar staffed by the playwright and light/sound board operator. It's wonderful, and reminds this theatre gal why she fell for it all in the first place.
The artists involved in Ear are all part of the Space 55 ensemble, and their bio credits read like a cross between The Organic Theatre, Second City and Coney Island. They're in this theatre thing for the long-haul, and they lean toward the dark, risky, edgy and strange.
Paul Kolecki plays Vincent, a 21st Century Van Gough send up. He's the crazy, tortured, madly in love artist who slices off his ear and gives it to his girlfriend, and he's the most sane character in the show. Kolecki is understated and appealing, both self-deprecating and not afraid to call tripe whenever tripe is served. He's a good egg, in a very weird omelette.
Marcella Grassa is Errata, recipient of Vincent's severed ear and the other half of the protagonistic duo. Grassa is lovely and fun to watch. Her acting feels rather superficial for most of the play, then takes a sharp turn to deep, grounded and real at the finish.
Most of Grassa's scenes are with the gorgeous and interesting Amy Carpenter, who plays the best friend character, Imogen. Carpenter's acting is also quite superficial at first, but quickly becomes focused and goes deep once she encounters the ear and all its mysteries. The moments between the women never really hit an authentic stride, and it feels to this critic like director oversight. When they are engaged in woman-to-woman, girlfriend chat, it's a bit cringeworthy. When they focus on the wild and whirling events that make Ear a play and not an infomercial, the piece becomes fascinating.
Duane Daniels plays Dr. Chochlear, as sick a ticket as you're ever gonna meet. Daniels is tall and gangly and big-eyed and entirely comfortable on stage. He's hilarious and handles seriously messed up material with great aplomb.
Jesse Abrahams plays Drum, a mental patient with commensurate quirks and neuroses. Abrahams' acting is shaky - he seems unsure of himself until his final scene, when he is quite at home and takes us with him on a trip to the dark lord's fun house. Not really. But that's what it feels like.
Ernesto Moncada is fabulous as Don Pablo, whom we immediately recognize as a Carlos Castaneda parody. Moncado is a delicious performer and it's hard to look at anyone else when he's onstage.
Frederick's wild direction contributes to the insanity - as one scene ends, the actors in the next scene enter in darkness. We see the actors moving around the scenery and the door to the street opens often, during the matinee, when the sunlight slashes across the long, linear, shallow stage. The experience feels reckless and dangerous, and never not fun.
The designs were generated by the actors - Daniels did the lights, Naftule did the sound, and Carpenter created the excellent backdrops and fanciful set, as well as the body castings and the show's poster. The playwright did the program.
Ear is not for kids, shrinking violets or people with serious heart conditions. Between the laughing and the gasping, it's all we can do to get out alive.
Ear plays Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through October 1st. Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $15. Get tickets and information here.