By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The Unseen must be seen. Wedged into a ragged repertory of a dozen shows at WaterTower Theatre's seventh annual Out of the Loop Festival, this 65-minute drama by Craig Wright occupies the small studio space only one more time on the fest's closing weekend. It could and should reach a larger audience as a breakout production that deserves a longer run.
In it, two political prisoners, victims of abuse by a brutal and unnamed regime, carry on wide-ranging discourse between their cells. They can hear but not see each other (there might or might not be another prisoner between them), and as they edge closer to madness, their talks burst with absurdist riffs that echo Beckett and Kafka.
If that makes it sound wickedly boring, it's anything but. The Unseen is a short but mighty masterpiece that packs a searing emotional wallop. The festival production by the American Actors Company (in association with Baylor University) was directed by Lisa Denman and features sharp, focused work by its three topnotch actors (all Baylor drama profs). Steven Pounders, Stan Denman and Thomas Ward smoothly navigate Wright's raging torrent of words. Their speech shows off the sort of vocal dexterity we expect from classically trained English stage actors and hear too rarely in American ones.
For much of The Unseen, Pounders, playing the prisoner named Wallace, and Denman, as prisoner Mr. Valdez, just talk. In their dimly lit quarters deep within a vast penitentiary, they sit or lie on metal cots, or stretch out on the hard floor as they banter back and forth. Punctuating their chats are the clangs and jarring electronic buzzes of steel doors opening and closing in other wings.
To pass the time and stay mentally alert—the men have sat in solitary for 11 years—Wallace and Valdez play elaborate memory games full of images from sea voyages to tropical climes. Between word exercises they try to guess the identity of their unidentified captors and suppose whether an escape might be possible through mythical tunnels beneath their cells. Both look for clues about the outside world in bits of info gleaned from interaction with their chief tormentor, a ski-masked guard nicknamed "Smash" (Ward). "Every great change in the world begins with buttons," says the soft-spoken Mr. Valdez, son of a seamstress.
Wallace becomes obsessed with unraveling other mysteries, like the prison's confusing architecture. Is it beehive, coliseum or skyscraper? He also decodes the patterns of buzzes on the PA system. Any day now, he believes, he and Mr. Valdez will be free again. "Is this what you think about when we're not talking?" Valdez asks Wallace. "No," answers Wallace, "this is what I think about when you're talking."
Things change abruptly for the men, but in a way that underscores the playwright's gift for surprising turns. Look for the torturer, not Wallace or Valdez, to crack under pressure. In a funny but intensely disturbing speech, Smash fantasizes about the perfect interrogation device, one that could cleanly extract a prisoner's eyes and tongue, the better to avoid painful gazes and hideous screams.
What keeps The Unseen from devolving into just another piece of downer agitprop is Craig Wright's witty, well-constructed script. He's a longtime TV writer for such formula-busting series as Six Feet Under and Lost, which explains his play's efficient pacing and black humor. His ideas are fresh and provocative. Themes of political oppression and the futility of torture could be commentary on Abu Ghraib or some Argentine junta, though it all somehow feels closer to home. Or this play could be interpreted as a more intellectual Fight Club, all roiling inside the mind of a madman.
Only experienced actors can carry off a piece this deeply layered and language-dependent. Pounders, Denman and Ward, The Unseen's all-Equity cast, are well-matched to the project. They excel at that hardest of tasks in live theater: Making mere words and the sound of human voices capture the imagination and move an audience to tears.
Think acting is easy? Try this: Find 60 pages of prose, something with lots of dialogue and long, descriptive phrases written in the local slang of, say, a working-class neighborhood in Dublin, Ireland. Now commit every word to memory. No paraphrasing. Every syllable exactly as the writer typed it.
Got it in your head? Now go stand alone in a spotlight in front of 100 people and speak the entire thing as if everything you're saying just popped into your head. And for every second of the hour that you're onstage, make every listener believe you.
This is what Dallas actor Lee Trull is doing to great effect in Irish playwright Conor McPherson's one-man one-act Rum and Vodka, another gem at WaterTower's ongoing Out of the Loop Fest. Trull has been gaining momentum as an actor (he's also a playwright), having starred in Kitchen Dog's Dust Bowl saga End Times. More recently, he played a string of roles in WaterTower's lovely Almost, Maine.
In Rum and Vodka, Trull rockets through the confessional monologue of a 24-year-old husband who, in the course of 72 hours, loses his job, cheats on his wife, gets drunk 15 different ways, wakes up in a pool of his own sick and crawls back home in such sorry shape he's ashamed for his kids to look at him. Speaking directly to the audience, Trull unreels this sordid tale using just a hint of a brogue. As the action builds, the actor pulls us in closer, like a drinking buddy sharing secrets. With some clever vocal gymnastics and blasts of motion that send him skittering all over the stage, Trull takes us through a sad but entertaining odyssey whose ending is hard to predict.
As difficult as it is to define what makes one performance transcend another, it's almost too easy to zero in on what weak actors do wrong. In Fool for Love, now in the Black Box Theatre at the Hampton-Illinois Library in Oak Cliff, the two leads in Sam Shepard's four-character play wrestle with the dialogue and each other in a staging by MET Theatre and Totally Wow Productions that goes wonky from the start.
So many young performers seem to think going buck wild onstage equates to maximum effort. But that confuses activity with artistry. Fool for Love's crazy couple, May and Eddie, do a 75-minute push-pull of physical passion and revulsion, but that doesn't mean the actors playing them have to slam the doors of that motel room every time or stomp around like deranged clog dancers.
Playing May, brunet beauty Haven Powers tosses her shiny hair like she's auditioning for America's Next Top Model. She's a hot histrionic mess, hitting one flat note after another. Her unrefined diction has her say "nee-ow" for "now" and "kee-ant" for "can't."
As down-and-out rodeo type Eddie, Randal Scott is about as sexy as a cowpat. He yells his lines and misses all of Shepard's intentions for the character. He really should have learned how to throw Eddie's lariat, too, instead of swinging it around like a hula hoop.
Relegated to minor roles, but doing much better work, are Ken Long as "The Old Man," a ghostly father figure haunting May and Eddie, and Don Long as suitor Martin, the dim but decent dude who comes to call on May. Both Longs dare to keep their performances simple and quiet, while all around them their co-stars wrangle for bigger bites of the scenery.