Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Antipodes
Stray Cat Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The Wild Party, All Shook Up and West Side Story


The Cast
Photo by John Groseclose
I'm fairly certain that everyone, whether they realize it or not, has been impacted in some way, large or small, by a story they were told by another person, read in a book, or saw on stage, at the movies, or on TV. But with the constant rehashes and remakes of novels, TV shows and movies, are there any new stories to tell? That's the launching point for one of Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker's latest plays, The Antipodes. While it may be a drama with a somewhat vague and meandering plot, it makes for an intriguing study into the current status of storytelling and also how the drive to have a finished work be as successful as possible can impact the creative process in not exactly positive ways. Stray Cat Theatre presents the Arizona premiere of Baker's play in a thought-provoking production with an excellent cast and pinpoint direction.

The setting is a windowless conference room in an unspecified location where a group of creative thinkers have come together, under the leadership of a man named Sandy, to come up with an idea for a project. We are never given any specific details about what exactly that project is, but we know from what the participants say that these are highly coveted jobs. Sandy says that everyone needs to feel comfortable and safe in the room and also feel free to say whatever comes to mind. He instructs the group to "tell a really good story" with no judgements or fear of not being politically correct. The group is told the project they are working on is about "something monstrous but not necessarily about a monster" and that their personal stories they tell, and the ideas they bring up, will be the inspiration for the final piece in the hope that one story will be the spark the group needs to ignite the idea for this project. Over the course of the 115-minute, one-act play, which appears to take place over a couple of months, the group is asked to talk about such personal items as their first sexual experience, their biggest regret, and the worst thing that ever happened to them. They also wax philosophically on such ideas as how they see time and how they believe the creation of man really happened.

There isn't much of a plot and there are a few odd moments that imply there is something unnatural going on outside of the conference room, which, along with several other questions that are brought up, remain unaddressed by the time the play gets to its rather sweet and somewhat uplifting ending. Still, those few small quibbles aside, Baker has crafted an interesting and captivating drama that brings up several interesting thoughts and ideas. These range from how there may, or may not, only be a small number of main plots that every story has been based upon, to how the current climate in Hollywood calls for stories to be developed by a group, and decisions made by a committee, through spit-balling sessions, to ensure their highest rate of success. She also adds in some hilarious and accurate portrayals of how these brainstorming conference meetings can steer off course, how the technology of video conference calls is often beset with problems, and how the expectation for success can prove entirely trying on the members of the group when they have no clear understanding of where they actually stand in the eyes of the people managing the process. Also, the fact that Baker has specified in the script that there only be one woman and one ethnic male in the group, which is otherwise a sea of white men, is, I believe, clearly intentional to show how the strides that women and minorities have made in the creative world still leave them far behind an industry dominated by white men.

Under Ron May's expert direction, the ensemble of actors superbly create layered characters who, though we know very little about them except what we hear through the stories they tell, are unique, while also effectively portraying the wide range of group dynamics in a team where no one really knows much about each other. They also do an amazing job in creating realistic expressions and gestures to portray the constant state of anxiety and nervousness that happens when they are never truly certain if what they are coming up with is good enough—and if it isn't, will it mean the ends of their careers?

David Weiss, as Sandy, is very effective at showing how this man is clearly in charge and calling the shots, though he is often distracted by his own personal issues and his fear of not living up to the demands of his own boss. As the two men who have been involved in past think tanks for this company, Michael Peck and Louis Farber do an amazing job of displaying the heightened anxiety and fears that the project may not come to fruition. Dolores Mendoza, Michael Thompson, Eric Zaklukiewicz, Will Hightower and William Wyss add many moments of both drama and humor as a wide range of characters, with each getting several moments to shine, and Shannon Phelps is a knock-out as Sandy's ditzy assistant who tells a story of her past that is truly unbelievable—both the story and Phelps' delivery of it.

Is The Antipodes an absurd satire, or a cautionary tale on how corporate think tank worlds have taken over the Hollywood creative process? Is it a reality check on how there are no original stories left to tell, or how the stories we've been told in our past can take on a life of their own to the point where, over time, we embellish them with unrealistic details but retell them with such conviction that we believe they are factual? Or, does it show that one single writer can still come up with a story that is entirely original and completely engaging? I believe it's all of the above.

Stray Cat Theatre's The Antipodes, through September 22, 2018, at the at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe AZ. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480-227-1766 or visiting straycattheatre.org.

Written by Annie Baker
Director: Ron May
Stage Manager: Kiki Malalo
Scenic Design/Technical Director: Aaron Sheckler
Costume Design: Maci Cae Hosler
Property Design: Jessica Florez
Lighting Design: Dallas Robert Nichols
Sound Design: Kristen Peterson

Cast:
Sandy: David Weiss
Sarah: Shannon Phelps
Eleanor: Dolores Mendoza
Adam: Michael Thompson
Danny M1: Michael Peck
Danny M2: Eric Zaklukiewicz
Josh: Will Hightower
Dave: Louis Farber
Brian: William Wyss


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