Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ideation as "the capacity for or the act of forming or entertaining ideas." It is a buzz-word among those who practice corporate sector strategic planning, brainstorming, product development, and other processes by which problems are solved and profits are earned. The five characters in Aaron Loeb's galvanizing play take part in a pow-wow in which they have been given just ninety minutes to come up with a project plan for J.D., the take-no-prisoners CEO, who is present only as a voice on their inter-office speaker system. They work sitting at and circling around a typical corporate conference room table, with a large whiteboard behind the head seat for marking out flow charts, matrixes, enumeration of possible scenarios, quantification of unknown variables, and other artifacts of the organizational thinking.
Three project engineers have been called back by J.D. mid-course in working a lucrative deal in Greece. Ted is the group's veteran, who plays by the rules to get the job done without looking behind any curtains. His goal today is to finish quickly so he can make it to watch his daughter play in the regionals. Brock is tightly wound, looks at things from every angle, and seizes as much control and attention as he can. Sandeep is an Indian national who was hired by the company straight out of Harvard, and depends on them to maintain his U.S. work visa. Overseeing the project is Hannah, a mid-level executive whose role is to make sure the other three stay on track and get the project done pronto. The fifth character is a just out of grad school intern introduced as Scooter, who is there to set up the conference room and to take notes on the meeting, though those are not his interests.
As they get to work, pressed by their ninety-minute deadline, the team reviews three ground rules that have been set for them: 1) no PowerPoint, 2) assume the worst, and 3) do not use the "N" word. Ground rules are a given in a group-think project like this, but these are atypical ground rules. Since the project is top secret, they consider what intel to give those who execute discrete steps of the plan, on a strictly need-to-know basis. Something triggers them to wonder if they, too, have been handed only a partial description of the project by those higher up the ladder. What do they not know about the project and are they immune from the horrific outcomes they begin to imagine (see ground rule #2)? Paranoia and mistrust wreak havoc as they raise questions such as what is truth, who defines it, what sources are trustworthy, and does truth carry with it a moral imperative?
These are questions many of us are asking in response to the daily news, as such concepts as "fake news" and "alternative facts" compete with truth for our grasp on the world. It is noteworthy that as much as Ideation feels like it could have been written in the past 18 months as a response to our current world scene, Loeb's play actually had its world premiere in 2013 in San Francisco, with an Off-Broadway run in 2016. Knowing that gives an even stronger sense that these issues and the way in which these well-educated, seemingly rational people respond to them are more deeply imbedded in society than our current events.
Director Brian Balcom gives Ideation a brisk pace that continues to ratchet the stakes, from the opening scene with Scooter acting goofy to the final lights-out. He doesn't shy away from the play's humorwhich is decidedly darkbut always keeps the focus on the uncertainties swirling about the room. His five cast members seem to have been teleported from an actual corporate conference room, so authentic are their performances. As Hannah, Katherine Kupiecki is in the position holding the group together and forcing forward motion, while her own vulnerabilities bubble up. Kupiecki excels at putting her strength front and center, while revealing the growing cracks in her veneer. While this is firmly an ensemble piece, Kupiecki's performance is the core that holds it in place.
Peter Christian Hansen completely captures Brock, confident, super-extroverted, controlling, glib-tongued and, yet, somewhat childish. Brian P. Joyce is terrific as Ted, a steady hand who is not about to rock the boat. Because he is so committed to going with the program, when the shell around the team cracks, he has no resources to cope and completely loses his composure which Joyce does phenomenally well. Nikhil Pandey conveys Sandeep's intelligence, along with a capacity to justify his desires and speak out when he suspects risks too great to bear. As Scooter, Ben Shaw is delightfully annoying, depicting a stereotypic self-entitled millennial, expecting status without doing grunt work on the bottom step.
Costume, set, lighting, and sound design are all tip-top in creating Ideation's corporate conference room and its occupants on the Gremlin's thrust stage. Be advised, though, that some key information appears on the whiteboard, so a seat that allows a clear view of it will help follow the spiraling tension of the narrative (the Gremlin has open seating). The mood is established before the play begins with hard driving rock music, and sends us out with a song by Rage Against the Machinenot too subtle, but by then the audience is in such a heightened sense of shocked astonishment that subtly would probably be lost.
Playwriting is a sideline for Aaron Loeb, his main job being President of FoxNext Studios in Los Angles, where his role includes overseeing the development of mobile games based on the Avatar and Marvel Cinematic Universe properties. Clearly, he is familiar with the process of ideation in the creation of enticing new products, and the murky line between reality and paranoid fantasies that drives the narratives of those properties. No wonder his writing is so on-target, and the conflict he fabricates both believable and preposterous. True, an intimate relationship is tossed in that does little to advance the story, but neither does it slow things down. This is crackling playwriting that will leave audience members talking about if for days after, mounted in a peerless production by the cast and crew at Gremlin. Rush to see it.
Ideation, through July 29, 2018, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: General admission - $28.00, seniors and Fringe button holders - $25.00, under 30, pay half your age for any performance. For tickets go to gremlintheatre.org or call 1-888-71-TICKETS.
Playwright: Aaron Loeb; Director: Brian Balcom; Technical Director, Set and Lighting Design: Carl Schoenborn; Costume Design: A. Emily Heaney; Sound Design: Inna Skogerboe; Prop Design and Stage Manager: Sarah Bauer; Producer: Peter Christian Hansen
Cast: Peter Christian Hansen (Brock), Brian P. Joyce (Ted), Katherine Kupiecki (Hannah), Nikhil Pandey (Sandeep), Ben Shaw (Scooter).