Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012

Loving The Prison of the Unseen

The World’s Stage Presents Its Best Yet

By Russ Bickerstaff
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There’s something really primal about the metaphor of a prison onstage. There’s a long list of shows that I’ve loved that have been prisoner dramas…Next Act’s Coyote On A Fence in ’05. In Tandem’s Two Rooms in ’06. Pink Banana’s production of Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me from a couple of years back. The brilliant thing about Craig Wright’s The Unseen is that is abandons all the details and dives right into the metaphor of being a prisoner. It’s easily the most intellectually engaging script I’ve seen staged so far this year. Wright’s dialogue is d deeply poetic in places and deliciously abstract . . . set in a place that is very, very ambiguous.

The World’s Stage presents a production of the play directed by Catie O’Donnel  this week that openly embraces the ambiguity. Angela Zylla’s set and Shelby Kashian’s costume design don’t suggest any specific time or place other than some kind of present. For its sheer sense of minimalism, this is a very, very beautiful production.

There are all kinds of reasons this has become one of my favorite plays of the season so far. Part of it may be the fact that there are two men who are relatively new to the stage. Here’s a quick reference guide:

Zachary Kunde (pictured above) is Wallace. He’s the intellectually restless prisoner. Notice he’s holding a couple of things there. He does quite a lot of that before intermission. Like his compatriot Mr. Valdez, he’s been in prison for a very, very long time. He’s trying to infer the entire world outside the prison. At least one critic suggested in a review of the script some time ago that Wallace was the abstract embodiment of science and reasoning. I think this is very silly. I don’t want to extend the metaphor that far, but if you want allegory, Wright can give you allegory here. Kunde is a recent graduate of UW-Whitewater. He’s got a very distinctive look in the role . . . not exactly skeletal, he looks more like a giant four-limbed insect that’s been covered in skin. (I mean that in the best possible way . . . he looks really good in the role…his restlessness in the opening of the play is infectious.)

Ben Rogaczewski (that’s him on the left) plays Mr. Valdez. He feels like he’s made some sort of connection with the world beyond his cell. At least one critic suggested in a review of the script some time ago that Valdez was the abstract embodiment of faith and religion. I think this is very silly . . . again with the allegory. In any case, Rogaczewski gives the prisoner dynamic more of a feeling of direct emotion. Interesting thing about the relationship between him and Wallace? They’ve never seen each other face to face. Director Catie O’Donnell had both actors do all their early rehearsals with a wall separating them. Clever idea (during the show I was wondering if they’d rehearsed blindfolded.) The two characters are relating to each other by voice alone . . . but there’s a strong emotional connection here and the Kunde and Rogaczewski don’t ever seem to be playing to each other physically—not even the slightest glance at each other, even though it’s so completely against basic human instinct to do so. (The set uses invisible walls for the prison, which become their own kind of metaphor, but those walls are very real to the audience even though we know they’re not actually there.)

Clayton Hamburg plays the torturer Smeija. Hamburg’s trademark explosive animalistic anger are here in a performance that recalls his turn as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire with Carte Blanche. He’s a very imposing presence even though muh of his time onstage early on is completely silent.  He handles the gruesome end of the dialogue. There are those who interpret this character as being the devil. Again, I think this is kind of silly, but again with the allegory. He’s just another prisoner, really. There’s a point at which Valdez outlines the perfect prison . . . and in a way, he’s kind of describing the world itself when he’s descrinig that prison, which is extended into the prison that Smeija runs into beyond the prison. Hamburg does a really good job of bringing out the nuance in a drama that also edges into dark comedy on numerous occasions.

 

The World’s Stage’s production of The Unseen runs through January 29th at the Tenth Street Theatre. Tickets an be reserved at Brown Paper Tickets.com

A more coherent review of the show runs in the next Shepherd-Express.

Clayton Hamburg with World’s Stage Artistic Director Gretchen Mahkorn. This probably looks kind of weird out of context . . . just go see the play. It’s really good.

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