Arts & Entertainment
Absurd Promise 'To Mess With Your Head A Little' Succeeds At The Abreact
By John Quinn
Originally printed 9/12/2013 (Issue 2137 - Between The Lines News)
Hot on the heels of a wildly successful season featuring the works of contemporary Irish playwrights, The Abreact ramps up the risk factor by presenting a season celebrating the absurd. Absurd - as in "Theater of ..." - a genre that Eugene Ionesco, one of its masters, called "anti-theater." The lead-off is a twisted little play by the godfather of the American Absurd, Edward Albee, entitled "The Play about the Baby," which was nominated for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Theater of the Absurd is a tough sell. It is confrontational, counter-cultural and more than a little nihilistic. It rejects convention and traditional ways of thinking. Theater of the Absurd is electro-shock therapy for the intellect. Its audience is so rattled by the surreal experiences, they find fresh outlooks when they return to reality. "The Play about the Baby" explores two of the deepest themes of the Absurdist movement: the failure of language as a means of communication, and the disturbing notion that reality is only in the eye of the beholder.
"Baby" is a hard show to review, since among the conventions that Albee tossed out were plot and character. But, as rude outline, this might do. A Boy (Zach Hendrickson) and a Girl (Erin Hildebrant) live a perfect life of passionate devotion, leavened by frequent sex. Into this innocent Eden slither two snakes in the grass, Man (Joel Mitchell) and Woman (Linda Rabin Hammell), seemingly determined to upset the apple cart. Why? Eden is too perfect. "If you don't have the wound of a broken heart," says Man, "how can you know you're alive?" Thus they set about inflicting a "hurt beyond salvation."
Oh, about that baby? That baby is what "The Play about the Baby" is about. Forgive me if I indulge in my love for the absurd, but to write more would spoil the fun.
And "Baby" is fun - or more accurately, funny. There is a guy-wire tension between this grim sketch of a plot and the off-the-wall delivery of same. Charles Reynolds, artistic director of the Abreact and stage director of this convoluted production, deftly resolves the conflict, assisted by a remarkable cast.
Mitchell and Hammell revel in outrageous characters; they are at once inside and outside the play. Man and Woman "break the fourth wall" and comment directly to the audience. They demonstrate yet again the raw theatrical potential of monologue when it is delivered by gifted performers. In the confines of an intimate venue like The Abreact Performance Space, the connection between artist and audience is palpable.
Hendrickson and Hildebrant have roles that are no romp in the park, either - although their games of tag, "au naturel," sure look like a romp in the park. Albee's dialogue for the couple is more superficial than for the older characters; it's not until the second act that they come into focus. The interpretations mature, and their brutal honesty, implicit in the first act, shines through. Act II reprises a ton of dialogue, yet the entire emotional beat has shifted. The words take on a different, often ominous, importance. Welcome to Albee's topsy-turvy world.
Sexual references are pervasive in the production, but more disturbing than brief nudity is the effect of the original art work by Michael Mikolowski:, three panels of ambiguous, but Freudian import, a Rorschach test that every audience member is going to interpret differently.
Albee describes his work as "an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, and emasculation and vacuity, a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen." How like an Absurdist to condemn cruelty in an essentially cruel play. Yet Albee also notes, "For just as it is true that our response to color and form was forever altered once the impressionist painters put their minds to canvas, it is just as true that the playwrights of The Theater of the Absurd have forever altered our response to the theater."
Indeed. For anyone willing to sweep the "wangled tebs" from the attic in his head, "The Play about the Baby" is the broom to choose.
'The Play About the Baby'
The Abreact, 1301 W. Lafayette, #113, Detroit. 8 p.m. Friday & Saturday through Sept. 28, plus 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 17 and 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22. Contains adult themes, nudity and language; no one under 17 will be admitted without parent or guardian. 1 hour, 55 minutes. Donation only. 313-454-1542. http://www.theabreact.com