BWW Review: WORSE THAN TIGERS at ACT Theatre: Absurdism with a Bite
RED Stage's premiere production "Worse Than Tigers" is more than an emotional roller coaster-- it is a full emotional carnival. Directed by Emily Penick, this jostling, absurdist comedy misleadingly kicks off with understated, easily digestible absurdity, including odd, disjointed language exchanged between an incompatible married couple. But buckle up, because you will plummet into this couple's Lynchian fever dream where getting thrown to the lions (or in this case, tigers) brings their dying marriage back to life.
Olivia (Kristen Potter) and Humphry (Bradford Farwell) are an unhappy couple who speak to each other euphemistically when they are not compulsively checking their phones. Olivia is cold and snippy; Humphry is clueless and boring. The entirety of the play takes place in their state-of-the-art living room, which feels way too starched and rigid for a human to feel relaxed in. Jennifer Zeyl's set design starts so pristine and polished, it holds the potential energy of something soon to be destroyed. Olivia and Humphry are forced to communicate when they find themselves trapped in the living room with Olivia's lover Kurt (John William Watkins) with a man-eating tiger outside the door.
Not many absurdist plays are a call-to-action, but "Worse Than Tigers" proposes that communicating through social media is inherently a breakdown of human communication because it is completely stripped of emotion. Additionally, Olivia and Humphry cannot communicate with one-another because Humphry is logical and Olivia is emotionally starving. She longs for the danger and excitement that Humphry used to provide, and her lover, macho, erratic rock n' roller Kurt only accentuates the numbness within her marriage.
Kristen Potter's portrayal of Olivia was perfectly intense--even when she was acting aloof. Bradford Farwell as Humphry provided that extra layer of martyrdom in his portrayal of the oblivious, nice-guy that really hit it out of the park. For me, the stand out role of the evening was John William Watkins as Kurt. He masterfully captured the seductiveness behind Kurt's mania that made Olivia's lust and Humphry submission believable. Kurt's character truly manifested machismo and then some, and Watkins handled that high-energy role brilliantly and hysterically.
The set design by Jennifer Zeyl was absolutely brilliant because it created such a claustrophobic, inescapable feel for both the cast and the audience. Two constructed walls bookended the stage, and the audience enclosed the living room, forming the other two walls. On a conceptual plane, it made absolutely perfect sense. I will say that on a practical level, there were moments where the characters had entire conversations with their backs to at least one side of the audience. My half of the audience enjoyed when Olivia made a sour face when her husband hugged her, but the other half did not get to enjoy that moment. Whether this was intentional or not was unclear to me.
Absurdist theater contains unrealistic characters, settings and plots for the purpose of showing that this world lacks inherent meaning; therefore any attempt to ascribe meaning in this meaningless world is absurd. Having a call-to-action feels incongruous with the genre. Essentially, the play wants to show how to extrapolate realistic lessons (i.e. unplugging from social media) from unrealistic elements, and therefore, the extrapolation is tenuous. There typically is not a moral compass in absurdist theatre, so moralizing a life lesson about honest communication does not make sense.
That said, "Worse Than Tigers" could be an outstanding opportunity to provide absurdist theatre to the masses because beneath its ludicrous plot points and peculiar dialogue is a cohesive, relatable, and genuinely hilarious narrative. If you have not seen an absurdist play before, I recommend "Worse Than Tigers" be your first.
I give "Worse Than Tigers" 4.5/5 stars.
"Worse Than Tigers" performs at ACT through April 17th, 2016. For tickets and information, visit them online at www.acttheatre.org.