What Rough Beast - Underlings Theatre Co
What Rough Beast – The Underlings Theatre Co.
Review by James Wilkinson
What Rough Beast is presented by The Underlings Theatre Co. Written by Alice Abracen. Directed by Lelaina Vogel. Scenic Design: Michelle Sparks. Lighting Design: Kat C. Zhou. Costume Design: Evelyn Quinn. Sound Design and Composition: Joshua Garcia.
The other day while driving home from the grocery store, I happened to catch the end of the TED Radio Hour on NPR and the speaker was Sue Klebold, mother of one of the Columbine High School shooters. If you’ve never heard it before, it’s worth seeking out. Her talk is relevant here for a few different reasons, but what brings it to my mind now is how she wrestles with the idea of finding answers in the face of unspeakable tragedy. In the years after her son became infamous, she and anyone she interacted with couldn’t let go of the idea of find that missing magical ingredient that would have prevented everything. If only she had hugged her son more. If only she had said “I love you” more often. If only he hadn’t played those violent videogames. The answer, though, can’t be found in a fortune cookie. You have to wade into much more complicated waters.
Why am I bringing this up now? Because complicated waters are exactly what The Underlings Theatre Co.’s new production of What Rough Beast dives into. It’s a thrillingly alive piece of work that crackles with electricity as you approach it. Alice Abracen’s play examines what happens when a controversial right-wing speaker is invited to give a talk at a local college campus. The leaders of the young liberal and young conservative groups see it as a chance to foster genuine discussion between those who are ideologically opposite from each other, but everyone else isn’t so sure. Doesn’t giving this individual a platform legitimize his views, many of which are bigoted and hateful? That’s the argument of Kevin (Jon Vellante), a student at the university whose younger brother Johnny (Paxton Crystal) is taking on the same right-wing rhetoric he’s been hearing on the internet. As the pressure on campus builds, everyone’s ideology is tested when the speaker arrives and the fireworks go off.
This isn’t the Underling’s first outing with a play by Alice Abracen. Last year saw them mounting a production of her piece The Tour which I liked a lot. Part of what I admired with that play was its tight form and attention to detail. One set, two characters interacting over ninety minutes. You could practically bounce a quarter off of its structure. What Rough Beast is a much messier play but it’s a play that earns that mess. The form feels necessary to give the play its particular spark. After all, it’s a messy subject that it’s driving head-on into.
What does carry over from The Tour, though, is Abracen’s incredible ability to present her characters with a clear-eyed view towards their faults and virtues. No one is allowed to slip into a “white knight” position within the narrative. Our relationship to the characters is more complicated than that. Take Kevin who spends much of the play spitting out “woke” rhetoric about privilege, religion, gender and race. He says exactly what any self-respecting left-leaning individual is supposed to be saying, but he’s also an insufferable ass. When his younger brother yells at him that he’s never cared about the family, you can’t shake the feeling that it’s probably true. Likewise, Johnny goes on to perform the most reprehensible acts imaginable, but Abracen still gives him an early scene of vulnerability where he watches his dreams go up in smoke. The goal isn’t to give excuses for those acts or to endorse any particular brand of ideology, but rather to extend a kind of radical empathy that recognizes the whole human being behind the acts.
At the start of the play, it might not be apparent just how character driven it really is. Much of the dialogue consists of characters spitting out arguments on their different positions. But something happens over the course of the evening. Every character is allowed the chance to show different sides of themselves. Credit has to be given to the fantastic team of actors that director Lelaina Vogel has assembled for finding the hidden pockets of emotion behind the rhetoric. You can see the pain written on Cara Clough’s Alyssa’s face as her family disintegrates. You can feel the determination of Brigitte Demelo’s Michelle as they struggle to keep to their ideals. With a glance, you can feel the rage bubbling beneath Paxton Crystal’s Johnny. These moments make the production feel like necessary viewing. The actors give the dialogue a drive as though they were fighting a life or death struggle and it grips you in your seat. There’s blood in those arguments. Olivia Dumaine pulls off a subtle but terrifying change when her Marlene, who starts off as a source of compassion, in just a few scenes reveals herself to be the play’s Mephistophilis.
I despise anyone who uses the word “dangerous” to describe watching theater (Just what in the hell is dangerous about sitting on a chair in a room watching a play?), but it’s hard to deny that there’s an edge to the atmosphere in What Rough Beast that director Vogel generates with her creative team. I’ve refrained from giving away too many plot points for spoiler reasons, but you only have to step into the theater to know that something bad is on its way. There’s a sense of unease in the air. It has to do with the Nine Inch Nails music that sound designer Joshua Garcia pumps in. The criss-cross lines over Michelle Sparks’ set design begin to resemble police tape.
The title of the play, (for those of you who are literary minded), comes the W.B. Yeats poem, “The Second Coming,” which describes the sense of dread he perceived at the start of the twentieth century. Some may assume that Abracen’s title refers to the rise of right-wing ideology in Trump’s America, but the play reveals that she’s after larger game. We all talk the talk about the importance of “reaching across the aisle” but how many of us do it? Here’s a play that acknowledges just how hard that is but challenges us to do the work anyway.
Go on. Roll up your sleeves. Dive in.
What Rough Beast is presented by The Underlings Theatre Co January 12-19, 2019