Penumbra opens a powerful and urgent
Also see Michele's review of Noises Off
Penumbra Theatre's searing On the Open Road by Steve Tesich is a road that every thinking Twin Cities theatergoer will want to travel. It's a tough road that both disturbs and rewards, and it shares an absurdist comedy pedigree with Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The staging in Penumbra's limited space is terrific, and director Lou Bellamy wrings first-rate performances and dark-as-Hades humor out of two of his veteran actors.
Open Road represents a shift for Penumbra, which usually produces the work of black playwrights, and Tesich was a white man of Yugoslavian descent. Bellamy seems to have selected the play for its urgent topicality. The play takes a mordant look at the increasing factionalization of politics and religion in an ongoing state of war, the subsequent corrosion of values and the shortcomings of human nature.
The play works as a sort of pilgrimage, as Al and Angel stumble through a landscape blighted by a future civil war. Al (James Craven,) an out-of-luck intellectual who is as unfeeling as a blunt instrument, and Angel (Benny S. Cannon,) a warm, but lonely ex-boxer and criminal, travel through towns ruined by a multi-factional war. The war has splintered and gained momentum from the Second Coming of Christ. In wonderful irony, Al seeks entrance to the illusory "Land of the Free." He plunders ravaged churches and museums of their art so that he will be able to prove to the border guards how cultured and deserving he is. He saves Angel's life in order to use him as a beast of burden and begins to educate him. Both men evolve in each other's company, but at the border, they are given a choice: kill Christ, or die.
The play opens on C. Lance Brockman's stark, yet stunning set, a series of metal squares and oblongs, partly filled with metalacized objects. They are the shards of war, some dagger-like, others more domestic, parts of broken chairs. As the scenes change Brockman's versatile set folds and unfolds, and Mark Dougherty's dramatic lighting, and Malo's sound design combine to turn a church interior into a landscape at sunset, or a railway track, complete with a fast-approaching train.
An abandoned Angel stands bound on a box, with a taut lynch rope around his neck, when Al finds him; it's an image horrifyingly familiar from recent photographs of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison. That tone of distressing familiarity, as we mire ever deeper in our current and endless "War on Terror," resonates throughout Open Road and gives the play excruciating clout.
Craven excels as Al. He's wordy and lofty, but he uses his erudition to diminish others and to promote himself. He does love art, but he collects it not to treasure it, but to create a worthy impression of himself to the boarder guards. (The metaphor of travelling through life's travails in order to gain Heaven lurks behind Tesich's text.) Al is a flawed sage, who is packed with needle-sharp insights into human nature. "The crimes against humanity are the same as the acts of humanity," he tells Angel. In the dehumanizing world of the war, he clings to just one last scruple that he proceeds to undermine in a scene of darkest comedy.
Angel is a simpler soul, an uneducated orphan who longs to be loved, and Cannon finds his humanity in a quiet, but gripping, performance that offsets Craven's forceful Al. In a play rife with irony and paradox, Angel might be a murderer - and we do see him break the neck of a soldier on stage - but he is the better human being.
As the calculating monk, the shrouded political power behind the scenes, Gavin Lawrence gives a chilling performance. Morality needs to be relative, he proposes in persuasive language as he fondles a choir boy, so that it can be more democratic, available to more people. Hence, Jesus, who sets the bar too high, must go.
Namir Smallwood plays a silent and visibly tortured Jesus, who expresses himself in lyrical cello playing on an unstrung cello, a nicely surreal touch. For a hint of possible redemption, watch Jesus' hand in the closing scene, with its overtones of Calgary.
Costume designer Mathew J. LeFebvre dresses Angel in torn and sleeveless dress-tails, suggesting the possibility of concealed wings, rather like a beetle's. Both men are convincingly ragged.
An air of the surreal pervades Open Road. It's not a play for the faint at heart, but it is an important play that in this production is too good to miss.
On the Open Road May 26 - June 20, 2004. Wednesdays - Thursdays 7:30 p.m. Fridays 8:00 p.m.-Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Sundays 7:30 p.m. Matinees 2:00 p.m. Saturdays. $30 -$35.Penumbra Theatre, Martin Luther King Center, 270, North Kent St. St. Paul. Tickets: 651-224-3180.