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On the Verge; or The Geography of Yearning

Theatre Review by Cindy Pierre

Helen Kim, Joey Schaljo and Madeline Virbasius-Walsh
Photo by Fool's Pearls Productions.

The three daring women of Eric Overmyer's women-centric, 1985 travel fantasy On the Verge; or The Geography of Yearning are never satisfied. They are constantly in pursuit of adventure that takes them far away from their homeland of Victorian America. Intelligent, intrepid, and inquisitive, they long for discovery of that which is greater than their own world while still maintaining some sense of gentlewoman decorum. But all good trips start with a purpose and end in a final destination. And for Fanny (Kill Bill's Helen Kim), Mary (Joey Schaljo, resembling Liv Tyler in profile) and Alexandra (Madeline Virbasius-Walsh), this one last trip will educate them beyond measure, dispense fulfillment and ultimately, divide them.

We first meet the explorers aboard their ship to Terra Incognita (Latin term for unknown land) where the ocean sound effects by Matthew Anderson are right on target, but drown out the voices of the characters. The crashing waves finally dwindle down for us to hear these wordsmiths engage in dialogue that is witty but as stuffy as their petticoats. Mary quickly establishes herself as a leader if these women could be said to have one, while Fanny and Alexandra carve their more liberal identities with Fanny's wig collection and Alexandra's interest in donning trousers and becoming a lyricist. Starting off in 1888 and equipped with everything imaginable to assist them with their journey, the would-be anthropologists whack through different time periods and jungles with their machetes, brave Himalayan peaks and encounter many colorful male characters, all played by chameleon Casey McClellan until they arrive in 1955 America. The problem is, despite a wonderful premise by Overmyer and a script that has moments of genius, the actresses not only sometimes have a hard time selling it, but McClellan steals every scene that he appears in.

Partially founded by Kim and Virbasius-Walsh, Theater company Fool's Pearls Productions aims to bring strong female characters and visions to the stage. And with On the Verge, they have certainly chosen the right material to support those goals. Unfortunately, casting McClellan in all of the male roles undermines these goals for several reasons. The dense material is already a little too ambitious for them. As it stands, they have not mastered the difficult dialogue, often tripping over words outside of the language devices particular to Alexandra's character (she often confuses one term for another). Already flailing in the material despite robust efforts, the women are further hampered whenever McClellan walks on stage. McClellan not only has more flexibility and easier dialogue because of the contemporary time periods that his characters inhabit, but he is also very comfortable with all of them. One can't help but smile, wondering who he'll transform into next, and he does so with aplomb. His friendly cannibal is as entertaining as his Grover, the husband that Fanny leaves behind, and he seems to enjoy every role. His multiple functions in the play only magnify the limits of the trio. And unfortunately, although his performances are sometimes over the top, he's the one to watch in a production that should have women at the forefront. Furthermore, the futures of once independent Fanny and Alexandra are each tied to one of the male characters, making love and men worthy opponents to the yearning for advancement.

Director John Grabowski orchestrates the scenes with purpose and truth, but his actors sometimes upstage with their backs to us, making the action on Oliver Sohngen's multi-purpose set sometimes difficult to see and reducing the impact of those scenes. The moments where the explorers discover new items from the future such as Velveeta macaroni and cheese and cell phones are handled with genuine wonder under his direction, and are of special note. The characters alternate between their lively experiences and lecturing about them, but the fact that the lectures are almost completely shrouded in darkness with Dans Sheehan's lighting design makes them snooze-worthy. Throughout their travels, there is constant mention of the need to bathe by Fanny, but this production doesn't deal with the ramifications of that. Even if the matter wasn't addressed in the script, there should have been some reaction from the actors, proper ladies or not. For they certainly already make choices that challenge the boundaries of their stations, in body language and scripted words.

On the Verge shines in some instances, and requires polish in others. Inspired by "A Long Desire" by Evan S. Connell, the script is a departure from Overmyer's television work for shows such as "The Wire" and "Homicide," but it displays his versatility well. The fact that his female characters exist in conflict between their conservative views and their gutsy moves creates boundaries for them even when they try to step out of them. And this, along with their comfort level, shows why this nearly three-hour production is not quite there yet, but on the verge.

On the Verge; or The Geography of Yearning
Through February 10
Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street between Lafayette and Bowery
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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