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Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham

Bewilderness
PlayMakers Repertory Company
Review by Garrett Southerland


The Cast of Bewilderness
Photo by Huth Photo
A trio of singing doctors, one bad-ass mama, and a talking woodchuck—all characters you expect to find in a show about the transcendentalist author Henry David Thoreau, right? Perhaps not, but a new play written by, directed by, and starring Zack Fine has all of that and more. Bewilderness presents itself first almost as a piece of historical fiction that will delve into the inspiration for Thoreau's masterpiece of American literature, "Walden." But this play turns out to have greater aspirations, though exactly what they aspire to could be interpreted in any number of ways. The play is in its world premiere at PlayMakers REpertory Company, running through January 13 at the Kenan Theatre at UNC's Center for Dramatic Art.

Mr. Fine, playing himself, serves as a sort of master of ceremonies. He introduces characters, interjects with commentary, and eventually enters the action. His main character, Thoreau himself (Geoffrey Culbertson), has a tougher time of it, understandably disoriented to meet the playwright and further thrown by the realization that he is being observed by an audience. His confusion quickly is complicated by the arrival of a cabin-full of characters, from his dead brother John (Dan Toot) to that talkative woodchuck (Jeffrey Blair Cornell). Thoreau believes he is either dead or going mad, and the audience is left without any clue as to where things might be headed. But that turns out to be the point.

Mr. Fine has created a play that has to be seen to be believed. Drawing heavily on the tradition of theatre of the absurd (think of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, or Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), Fine gives the impression of having taken whatever ideas came into his mind, no matter how crazy, and thrown them on stage to see what might work. But out of this hodgepodge of dialogue, music, singing and dancing, we get a view of Thoreau's obsession with the loss of his brother, and we gain insight on what it's like to struggle to create something great without knowing how to get on the right path toward it. There is plenty of ambiguity here, and "bewilderness" begins to feel quite apt, but that seems to be Fine's goal.

It's a pleasure to see a number of PlayMakers regulars here, clearly enjoying this excuse to let loose. The common question of "how much wood can a woodchuck chuck?" should be altered to "how many scenes can a woodchuck steal?" Jeffrey Blair Cornell walks away with more than his fair share of laughs with his deadpan delivery and comic timing. And Julia Gibson is a riot as Thoreau's vivacious mother, who literally demands equality in an anachronistic speech that encompasses revolutionary women of the past and present.

Producing Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch has compared theater artists to astronauts who venture out into the unknown territory of "our greatest desires and most crippling fears." As with any artistic piece, Bewilderness may be appreciated immediately by some and questioned by others. Whether or not you are able to find personal meaning in this show is an open question. But where would we be without the dreamers, be they nineteenth century or twenty-first?

Bewilderness, through January 13, 2019, by PlayMakers Repertory Company at the Kenan Theatre at UNC's Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill NC. Tickets can be purchased online at playmakersrep.org or by phone at 919-962-7529.

Playwright and Director: Zack Fine
Choreography: Tracy Bersley
Scenic Design: McKay Coble
Costume Design: Derrick Ivey
Lighting Design: Dominic Abbenante
Sound Design/Composer: Derek Graham

Cast (in alphabetical order):
David Adamson
Jeffrey Blair Cornell
Geoffrey Culbertson
Rishan Dhamija
Ray Dooley
Zack Fine
Julia Gibson
Brandon Haynes
Kathryn Hunter-Williams
Dan Toot


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