Directed by Brad Akin
Produced by The Poor Theatre
Acting to Survive in a Cruel World
What happens to the opposition when a country’s democratic institutions are so eroded they lose any ability to compete fairly? In many places it’s not a hypothetical, and the extent of government and corporate surveillance today has given writers of dystopian fiction in our own country much greater urgency. Late last year I saw Spartan Theatre Company’s excellent production of Tony Kushner’s early play A Bright Room Called Day, which depicted a young woman who had left the United States in the 1980s due to her overblown fear it was careening toward fascism. Now, another young company, The Poor Theatre, is putting on an equally skilled production of Edgar and Annabel, which imagines what might happen to those who stay too long.
The show begins with a man bursting in on a woman in a kitchen (designed quite well by Isabel Strauss). She’s surprised to see him, but he engages her in conversation by reading from a script. She has her own copy, and returns his mundane chatter about what she is cooking. They call each other Edgar and Annabel, and are clearly a married middle-class couple. But their fearful, clumsy movements, contradictions, and uncertainty reveal that something is very wrong. Near the end of their conversation, he hides documents in the vent and guns in a hidden cupboard.
That night, the two of them (Michael Medford and Abbey Smith) meet with an older man called Miller (Robert McLean) outside their house. Their real names are Nick and Marianne, and it was Miller who wrote their script. They are part of the armed wing of a party that is contesting the regime in the next election. Listening devices are planted in every house, but they are monitored by computers. As long as Nick and Marianne avoid saying anything suspicious, they are unlikely to be flagged and can live under assumed identities. Marianne is unhappy. She had a close bond with Karl, the man who played Edgar until this morning but has been captured. Nick is an ex-Army explosives expert, and feels rather ill-used by Miller and his cautious superiors’ slow work towards a political solution. He’s better at blowing things up than acting and passing along campaign strategies. But Miller believes there’s a hope of gaining clout, at least, and if Nick and Marianne can’t get along, he’ll change the script so Edgar and Annabel are fighting.
On the political front, things rapidly get worse to the point where Miller has no choice but to approve violent resistance. But as Edgar and Annabel fight, Nick and Marianne find themselves becoming more attracted to each other. The hidden information in their scripts and Miller’s actually plausible writing create several moments of comedic relief. But the best is when two more insurgents playing a couple (Erika Haaland and Will Crouse) come over to help assemble a bomb, a process they muffle with a karaoke contest. Medford and Smith show great subtlety as they negotiate their relationship and their deepening crises. He’s brooding and she’s determined to get everything right, but they come to love each other, even though their communication is limited to acting out a crises. McLean plays Miller as a fundamentally well-intentioned man underneath his suspicion and need to be a disciplinarian. But he’s suspicious of Nick, and hard choices must be made.
Brad Akin’s directing keeps events moving quickly, but allows us enough time to bond with the characters. We can’t possible know them well given the dystopian circumstances, but we sympathize with them, and hope for them even knowing they’re doomed politically. I was a little annoyed late in the show when the comedic canned music was used at a time I wanted to process something upsetting, but then I appreciated that these actors had managed to get me emotionally involved. And sure, there’s all sorts of meta-theatre at play here, but it works as something layered on the story, not essential to it. With such a low budget, the company has hardly any resources to manage except feelings, and in a story about characters living deep undercover in an inhumane world, they bring out the pain and occasional joy of the struggle.
Reviewed February 16, 2015
For more information, see Edgar & Annabel’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at The Side Project, 1439 W Jarvis Ave.