REVIEW: The Seeing Place Theater Takes On Conformity

Alexa Juno

  • OnStage New York Critic

New York, NY - "Is conformity the answer that guarantees safety and comfort in a civilized society?"

This is the question being asked in the two plays currently being performed in rep by The Seeing Place Theater. The first of these two works is the absurdist allegory, "Rhinoceros" by Eugene Ionesco.

When rhinoceroses begin appearing in a provincial French town, stampeding through cafes and trampling cats, turmoil overtakes the community. As mob mentality takes hold and more and more inhabitants find themselves transforming into rhinoceroses, it is unclear if the towns people are succumbing to the effects of a mysterious disease called, "rhinoceritis" or if their behavior is a willful abandonment of the demands of human society in order to join the herd and satisfy their more animalistic urges. Through lone-hold out, everyman, Berenger, we see this world through the eyes of one man clinging to his humanity as a new order takes hold.

 Rob Hatzenbeller and Emily Newhouse - Photo: Justin Hoch

Rob Hatzenbeller and Emily Newhouse - Photo: Justin Hoch

This play, originally written in 1959, was Eugene Ionesco's response to the upsurge of Nazism in Europe and uses rich philosophical discussion to explore themes of morality, the culture of mass movements, and the danger of conformity. When the text is permitted to do its job in this production, the complexity and modern application of Ionesco's work is apparent.  Sadly, over the course of my afternoon at the Lynn Redgrave Theater, I found this mission is largely marred by some distracting directorial choices and an unfortunate lack of absurdist acting technique. 

That is not to say that there isn't some potential in this effort. Director, Brandon Walker, starts strong here, offering focused yet chaotic staging as rhinoceritis first takes hold of the city. Unfortunately, as the mayhem growns, some less than calculated choices within this sequence of overlapping dialogue make for a noisy result  Larger issues arise in Act 2, as protest sign-wielding rhinoceroses snort and stamp their way through the audience from all angles, a political commentary that would be more successful if it didn't serve more as a welcome distraction from the blandness of the actors onstage and all but mute the intense theoretical dialogue at hand. 

The company is committed, but uneven in terms of ability and is severely lacking in the verbal rhythm and physical conventions that convey, well, the absurdity of theatre of the absurd, This leaves much of the material without the heightened reality and droll nuance necessary for this particular genre. The lone standout, however, is Logan Keeler, in a bit of impressive physical acting as intellectual, Jean, begins his transformation from human to rhinoceros. It is also one of the stronger overall moments in this staging as the actor wanders through the space, disoriented, writhing and contorting, flanked by a solitary, ghostly rhino aiding him in his transition. 

The actors play on Erin Cronican and Brandon Walker's nondescript, yet versatile set (that provided a sensible home for both the day's shows) and among Duane Pagano's animated lighting, an accurate reflection of the thunderous effects of a stampeding herd. Some music has been added throughout, but doesn't have much effect overall.

While I do applaud attempts at visualizing the more current themes of Ionesco's play in relation to our present political climate, in a work as strongly written as this, they feel largely superfluous; an unfortunate distraction from some truly evocative writing. This particular production, with all its good intentions, would have been better served putting the language first and avant garde innovation second.

Marsha Norman's, "Getting Out" is the second work of this cycle and is a decidedly slimmer piece thematically.  The story follows a woman, Arlene, in her attempts to shed her rough past and assimilate back into society following an eight year jail sentence. The theme of societal conformity sits at the forefront of this piece as we witness the limited options and difficult survival choices facing those making a life post-incarceration.

 Steve Carrieri and Erin Cronican - Photo: Russ Rowland

Steve Carrieri and Erin Cronican - Photo: Russ Rowland

Many of the issues with "Getting Out" lie in somewhat weak material.  Though the play is peppered with some satisfying dramatic moments and a compelling premise, some important holes in the prison narrative of the defiant Arlie give the audience few opportunities for to truly sympathize with the present, rehabilitated Arlene.  

The direction here employs as a similar, yet not nearly as distracting, element of full-house staging. In this case, the use of offstage space maximizes the playing area while keeping consistent focus and providing clear delineation between Arlene's past and present.

The show is also stocked with some wonderful supporting turns from a veteran cast. Carla Brandberg does some truly authentic and grounded work as Arlene's mother and an intimidating prison warden. Steve Carrieri has a strong presence and turns in a perfectly irritating and appropriately slimy turn as a Carl, a former pimp who attempts to woo and intimidate Arlene back into the criminal lifestyle. Jane Kahler does double duty as Arlene's well-meaning doctor as well as likeable, fellow ex-con, Ruby. For all this great support, however, the central performance by Erin Cronican is serviceable but too restrained in the character's more desperate moments.

Though the pacing of the play overall is quite good, the overall feel of the piece is one of anti-climax, though that seems to have more to do with a thin story than a poor execution. 

All in all, these stagings show great promise for what appears to be a dedicated indie theatre company.  Though some of their choices may not have ultimately paid off, more calculated risk taking of this kind could prove to be beneficial in the future. And while both plays do play into their premise of conformity as a means of survival, the plays ultimately say infinitely more than these particular stagings.