BWW Review: Spooky Action Theater Waxes Philosophical with RAMEAU'S NEPHEW
Spooky Action Theater opens its season with a cutting-edge play that covers politics, celebrity, and the nature of genius. RAMEAU'S NEPHEW, adapted from an 18th century work by Denis Diderot, is hardly new, but this 2016 incarnation is as timely and amusing as can be. Director Richard Henrich delivers a production with flashes of outright brilliance that compensate for a few (non-fatal) flaws.
Like so many other philosophical texts, this is a two-man show consisting of a dialogue centered on moral questions. The comedic source material has since been updated to include contemporary swear words, allusions to current events, and the implication that, were he around nowadays, Rameau's nephew would probably do well as a reality TV star. Besides the relation of insightful ideas, RAMEAU demands feats of physical comedy from the actors that would exhaust most mere mortals. Fortunately, Robert Bowen Smith as "HE" (Rameau's Nephew) and Ian LeValley as "I" (The Philosopher) are well-suited to their respective roles.
Smith commands the charmingly sleazy title role, conveying delicious debauchery as he makes his case for a life of vice and laments his present state of destitution. To call Smith energetic would be a gross understatement: he acts out detailed vignettes, becomes various characters, dynamically pantomimes a full orchestra, and to everyone's delight, performs an absurd song made up entirely of coughs. He truly excels at these, the play's most madcap moments, and seems to do so with ease. But the rest of the time, he over-acts slightly and has the grating tic of filling spaces between his words with laughter or other unnecessary vocalizations. Perhaps this is an intentional character interpretation, but in such an intimate venue, it can detract from the impact of the lines and create cracks in the audience's suspension of disbelief. Smith is touchingly vulnerable in a certain scene near the end, and he's gifted at subtle improvisation throughout. Applying a bit more of that vulnerability and subtlety would elevate his performance to greater heights.
LeValley is a good foil to Smith as the restrained, reasonable Philosopher whose resolve weakens as he argues. His chief purpose is to narrate, engage Rameau's nephew, and extract the rationale for that hedonistic, humiliating lifestyle. LeValley fulfills this purpose well.
Despite the modern themes, the production doesn't shy away from tailored period costumes (Erik Teague), but updates them with colorful, ironic details like patterned knee socks. Clad in formal coats, the actors continuously explore the Jenga-like walls of the set (Giorgos Tsappas), a closed space made of blocks that can be removed and replaced. The Philosopher tries to maintain the integrity of this proverbial box, while Rameau's nephew is intent on opening it up piece by piece. The Philosopher puts things back where they belong, only to find that the status quo no longer holds up. The set is a clever, well-constructed device, enhanced by atmospheric lighting (Brittany Shemuga) and sound design (David Crandall). The changes in the set sometimes correlate with the direction of the dialogue, but other times the blocks are moved around seemingly without a goal or reason. It is then that the set becomes a distraction.
If you were one of those students who stayed wide awake during Philo 101 and relished a lively post-class discussion, RAMEAU is a can't-miss. And even if you weren't, this production, regardless of its imperfections, is intriguing enough to provoke a lively post-show dialogue of your own.
Running time: approximately 90 minutes, without an intermission.
RAMEAU'S NEPHEW runs through November 13th, 2016, at Spooky Action Theater at the Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th Street NW, Washington, DC 20009. Tickets can be purchased at www.spookyaction.org or by calling 202-248-0301.
Photo: Robert Bowen Smith and Ian LeValley in RAMEAU'S NEPHEW; photo by Tony Hitchcock, courtesy of Spooky Action Theater website.