In a late hour email before I attended the first night performance of The Mad Ones‘ Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War at the New Ohio Theatre, I was notified that Con Edison were currently addressing a problem with the theatre’s heating system and I should consider dressing in a thick sweater. I grumbled a bit putting on my thick sweater as I headed out, but was actually entirely comfortable in my seat for the duration of the performance. Thinking about it now, it is not inconceivable that this alert may have been part of the very clever, meticulously thoughtful and imaginative production team’s idea at generating a theatrical reality for their play. How very 1950s to deploy a thick sweater while attending a theatre in wintertime, be it in the U.S.S.R. or the U.S.A. The production might have been dressing the audience for their performance.
The reason I am left with this speculation is because it seems there is nothing, quite simply nothing, that this production has not given some sharp thought to in their dramatization; sharp thought and imaginative response to. The thoroughness with which the team at The Mad Ones have undertaken this self-authored work is as impressive as it is deeply satisfying. Originally premiered at Brooklyn’s The Brick in 2010 – a production that garnered them a deal of notice and a clutch of NY Innovative Theatre awards and nominations – the play, allegedly, has undergone some minor tinkering and some extra polish since then. The result is a real gift for theatre lovers.
Developed by the ensemble from a premise by writer/actor Marc Bovino, the play springs from the somewhat cracked idea that the 20th century’s Cold War was interrupted at the end of the fifties by an invasion of giant robots who emerged from the ground in the U.S. mid-west. (Hmmm…) The action unfolds years later, in an unrecognizable analog-using present, in a secret bunker hold-up in Irkutsk where a team of Russian radio actors are broadcasting diversionary entertainment, complete with lackluster advertising interludes, to a devastated global audience. The fact that we are in a traumatized world where humanity’s survival hangs by a thread is never elaborated upon, merely suggested by a series of panicked siren warnings, over the air explosions, morse coded messages, and enigmatic episodes which are never explained. The characters take them all in their stride, never engaging in discussion about what is exactly going on. Instead we are treated to a lightly comic work environment where, whilst telling a radio story for their listeners – the tragic tale of fond brothers Alasdair and Samuel, “our favorite story” the on air host calls it – cornily rendered into a nostalgic, hackneyed narrative with songs, the broadcasting team – the host, an actor/technical advisor, an actress, a musician – go through their routine professionally bored with the familiarity of the material, mutely (we are live on air, after all) signaling and interacting with each other. Reality is presented as a dumb show behind an elaborately artificial dramatized story. These are Russian performers – what the U.S.S.R. now looks like we can only guess at (not so good as evidenced here) – presenting a touching tale set in the U.S heartlands that deploys American country music favorites from the fifties to build atmosphere and entertainment. The piece might be both crassly comical and unbearably ponderous if it weren’t for the considerable judgement at work in spinning such an apparently simple, if far-fetched story. The tiers of story telling each take a turn in the spotlight – the radio narrative, the actor’s interactions, the vast cataclysmic backdrop off stage – but all are held in a tight balance, and knit seamlessly together. As corny and at once bizarre as the tale of the two brothers is, we are brought to the brink of tragedy in the story telling. As compelling and troubling as the situation of the radio actors is – the vivid, nuanced performances of each allude to complicated backstories beyond the scenario presented – everything is perfectly framed within these scenes. And as apocalyptic and sci-fi as this story world is, all is solidly foregrounded in what is another ordinary day for the characters in their extraordinary situation.
I don’t believe I’ve sat through a performance before where the question of who the dramaturg is seemed so pressing. Mark it down to the uniform excellence on show. In this case it is Sarah Lunnie, who must take her part in the laudations well deserved by company members Lila Neugebauer (director), actors and musicians Marc Bovino (Dr. Mischa Romanav), Joe Curnutte (radio host), Stephanie Wright Thompson (Anastasia Volinski), and Michael Dalto (Alexei ‘Tumbleweed’ Petrovya). Impossible not to include mention of the contributions by everyone involved, but especially Stowe Nelson (sound design), Laura Jellinek (set design), and Mike Inwood (lighting).
Though listed as only the third production by this young company, founded just in 2009, it seems admirably mature in every way. They offer theatre thrillingly neither fish nor fowl, original, skillful, honed and captivating, with a lightly worn mocking panache of its own which stresses how stubbornly married we are to the notion of story in order to make our lives tolerable. I can hardly recommend The Mad Ones’ Samuel & Alasdair highly enough. As another author who knew a thing or two about dramatic story telling once wrote, “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.”
~~~Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War Conceived by Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Lila Neugebauer Created with the ensemble Written by Marc Bovino and Joe Curnutte Directed by Lila Neugebauer January 5 – 21, 2012 The New Ohio Theatre 154 Christopher Street (between Greenwich and Washington Streets) New York, NY Wednesdays – Saturdays at 8pm Tickets are $18 for adults and $15 for students/seniors Click here to purchase or call 212-868-4444.