FringeReview UK 2018
Directed by Ian Brown this production by Aaron Vodovoz for Surgent Theatre is supported by Pasante and INST self-tests kits, NAT and Terrence Higgins Trust. It features a set by David Allen who makes a chair-nest of Trafalgar’s diminutive Studio 2. Will Scarnell’s lighting evenly plays over the drab scene; Peter West’s sound discreetly filters the time with music and noises off. Nik Corrall’s aware of the fashion-frenzy of one protagonist. Dress though is sombre. Till July 7th.
Ionesco’s The Chairs meets Edmund White’s Farewell Symphony. As a run-up to Pride Season, this timely revival of Steven Dietz’s 1993 Lonely Planet finally lands this work squarely in the West End.
Premiering in the same year as Kushner’s Angels in America, Lonely Planet’s had an initially uneasy life in he U.S., despite production in over a hundred regional U.S. theatres; and translation into ten languages. Accused of coyness with structural flaws it emerges instead as here to stay. That’s ringingly endorsed in this pacey production by Aaron Vodovoz for Surgent Theatre, directed by Ian Brown.
Brown’s team does this witty, devastating play much service about the fear of AIDS in 1989. Running at just two hours including a twenty-minute interval, it might have played straight through with added intensity, though there’s inevitably a built-in pause at the climax of Act One.
David Allen makes a chair-nest of Trafalgar’s diminutive Studio 2. Surrounded on three sides, the backstage reveals a functioning door, and the wall’s festooned with maps the nature of which are explained; huge roll-up maps lean like ancient papyrii. Stage right there’s a lovingly-sourced table and cash register with an early visual display. 1989 exactly. Otherwise it’s chairs beleaguering another table, every one different.
Will Scarnell’s lighting evenly plays over the drab scene; Peter West’s sound discreetly filters the time with music and noises off with Dietz’s keynote written-in song: Joe Cocker’s version of Bob Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released’. Nik Corrall’s aware of the fashion-frenzy of one protagonist; no clothes have piped edges, but they’re understated. Sombre times.
Introspective Alexander McMorran’s Jody owns runs a map shop on the oldest street in an unnamed but relatively fashionable American city. His almost manically-extroverted friend Carl, played with frantic panache by Aaron Vodovoz, keeps visiting him with chairs. The reason for this Ionesco-like gesture becomes apparent, as Carl dons a fantasy series of careers: art-restorer, university teacher ‘that’s what I tell my students anyway’, plate glass replacer, and more humdrum roles. They’re all careers of friends whose chairs these belonged to. Carl goes to house clearances and can’t bear to see chairs orphaned on the pavement. Though he never takes a full set.
Explicit reference to the Ionesco play’s made, the plot recited: two retainers putting out chairs for the arrival of an incoherent speaker (as he proves) find no room and leap out of the window. It’s so obvious Dietz has to make it cheerfully explicit. White’s novel The Farwell Symphony throbs more unobtrusively. It takes Haydn’s trope of a diminishing orchestra till only two players are left, as a moving response to the AIDS epidemic. Dietz seems paying homage to White too, in a kind of reverse. There’s also more than a flicker of the famous toaster-stealing scene in Sam Shepard’s True West. Dietz is winking and it’s grimly enjoyable.
At the start it’s as though the two hardly know each other. Yet it becomes pretty apparent they know each other so deeply they can talk in evasive metaphors whilst the whole of Dietz’s clever dialogue prances around the hollowed-out theme of loss and terror. The two engage in cod-Shakespearean badinage as they fight with rolled-up maps. Everything’s a sparring, and they play dead.
Carl’s bringing the dead to Jody and taking up his physical space with them, because Jody can’t bear to go out and confront the dying community he’s part of and might also leave. He won’t test for HIV. His head’s as crowded with them as Carl’s adopted chairs crowd his shop in mute remonstrance.
Still, Jody indulges Carl’s serially-adopted careers, gently mocks him with his imprecise knowledge of the Hopper he says he’s restoring (though delicately doesn’t point out it might reside in a different state or at New York’s MOMA). You realize the depth of tender regard for two who aren’t lovers, but as they speculate why they never have been, Jody suggests friendship is that rarer thing; so it proves.
The map shop’s metaphor holds: it’s not obtrusive. As Carl cajoles Jody into leaving for that test – with several false starts – Jody lectures Carl on ‘The Greenland Problem’ – Greenland in reality far smaller than maps like the Mercator Projection suggest. The way our familiar world-map looks is down to distortive necessities of latitude for navigation. Carl can’t believe how the world actually looks, though Jody shows him a large photo taken by Apollo 17 of our lonely planet. How we cope, steer our way through living, Jody asserts, is sometimes a lie to keep the clarity of ourselves. There’s degrees of lying though, as friends inexorably head west and Jody fears even turning up to their memorials.
McMorran’s finely-terraced introversion is reasonable, not overdone. You feel the weight of his reflection as he literally navigates his conscience and sensitivity to Carl, his irritation and flashes of anger. His agoraphobia rationalises into a charming set of evasions but Jody’s not guyed. McMorran’s Jody is believably wise about most things, ultimately himself.
Vodovoz’s Carl is difficult to play other than frenetically: the words and tempo demand it. Vodovoz though doesn’t signal Carl as clearly gay. He refuses shorthand and cuts to his truth, the fright, a frantic connectiveness through a Mappa Mundi of grief and remembering. Carl’s witty latitudes are scored across with finalities.
We’re not allowed to think this historical either. There’s a series of Pasante and INSTI-sponsored talks attached to this production too; everyone goes away with a goodie bag including self-tester kit.
Dietz’s plotting is neat and truthful. There’s enough surprises to leave the rest to a visit more than worth making to this venue. If you know Angels in America, you’ll be grateful for Dietz’s concentration and economy, though you reel at Carl’s frantic assembly of acts and chairs. Like these, much reckoning is packed into a little room.