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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Absurd(ist) Tilt Angel
Premieres at New Jersey Repertory

Also see Bob's reviews of Cinderella and Gem of the Ocean

Tilt Angel
Andrea Gallo and Ian August
The good folks at New Jersey Rep have set a difficult and admirable course in bringing us new plays in their world premieres and/or early stages of development. Although it has sometimes paid dividends, their penchant for the theatre of the absurd has made their job even harder. How damnably difficult it must be to know from such a text what is the tone that will work for each scene, whether the play will work in performance, and, most basically, whether it is illuminating or pretentious babble at its core. Once dedicated artists have gotten such a work up on stage, it is far easier for viewers to discern its qualities. And even then we can be mistaken.

The absurdism applied to Tilt Angel’s story seems but decoration for a simple basic family tragedy. Furthermore, it fails to interest or entertain. The scene is rural Tennessee. Ollie, who is in his early 20s and clearly backward, is afraid to leave the house where he has always lived with his parents. His mother Lois has just died in a plane crash after running away from home. His father Red is working in his auto body shop. Ollie is fielding phone calls from Angel Bones. Who is Angel Bones? Well, I’ll try to tell you, Bones is an African-American male, dressed in a bedraggled officer-like uniform, who is equipped with a large pair of skeleton-like wings and sings bluesy songs. Bones is partially the ghost of the pilot of Lois’ doomed plane, partially a representative and messenger from the airline, and partially a strange angel dispensing advice to Ollie.

The very bitter and mean Red sports a homemade prosthetic hand. He has buried the hand which he lost years earlier in an accident (the details of which will be a late second act revelation) in the backyard garden. For years, Lois had accepted Red’s harshness and made an effort to teach Ollie, who was forced out of school in the sixth grade. However, recently, Lois had gone off the deep end, trading Better Homes and Gardens for the New Yorker and great classic authors. Taking whatever family savings that she could scrap together, Lois had run away from her fractious family to attend the University of Memphis. As the unpleasant events of an unhappy marriage are rehashed, the ghost of Lois is present corporeally and participates in the bitter conversation.

At the end of the first act, Angel Bones delivers to Ollie a box with Lois’ bones, only to have the earth open up as a gigantic skeletal hand grabs the box and Ollie, and pulls them into the ground. For obvious, heavy handed symbolism, there could not be a better example. However, stay with me for the beginning of the second act.

Both Ollie and the ghost of Lois emerge from under the earth. While Ollie is alive and well, Lois has been transformed into a human face with a head and body comprised wholly of garden vegetables. The continuing banter leads to the conclusion that, left alone together on earth, the heretofore estranged father and son must dedicate themselves to repairing their relationship.

Clearly, Dietz intends to infuse much humor into the evening. However, so much of the play is harsh and dark that all attempts at humor fizzle out. Director Cailin Heffernan would have had to tone down the harshness in order for any of the humor to work, but then she would have falsified the situation of its honest horrors. In any event, the little laughter at hand is uncomfortable and tentative. It seems that much of the intended humor is given to Angel Bones. However, there is nothing whatsoever in this enigmatic, split character to evoke any interest or sympathy.

Ames Adamson is strong and fearsome as Red. Possibly too much so. Although the text has elements clearly intended to make him sympathetic, it is hardly possible to feel that he is anything but a hateful ogre. However, the ubiquitous and talented Adamson expands his range with his display of strength and power.

Andrea Gallo as Lois is ditzy and likeable; even enveloped with vegetables, she is the most human character in the play. Although Ollie is too theatrically hopeless to engage us, Ian August seems to get all that an actor can from this role. Reginald Metcalf fails to add any grace notes to the misconceived Angel Bones.

The cartoon-like scenic design by Randy Lee Hartwig and Matthew R. Campbell is particularly clever in expanding the sense of horizontal space on the narrow stage.

Tilt Angel continues performances (Eves: Thu. – Sat. 8 p.m.; Mats: Sat. 4 p.m.; Sun 2 p.m.) through November 20, 2005 at the Lumia Theatre of the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ 07740; Box Office: 732-229-3166; online www.njrep.org.

Tilt Angel by Dan Dietz; directed by Caitlin Heffernan

Cast:
Ollie……………..Ian August
Red…………Ames Adamson
Lois………….Andrea Gallo
Angel.....Reginald Metcalf


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- Bob Rendell



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