Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Terrific Fire: New Work at 95 Empire

Aram Aghazian as Dr. Wishniak in A Terrific Fire. Photo by Flordelino Lagundino.

A Terrific Fire, the new play written, produced, and performed by Strange Attractor Theatre Co., at 95 Empire (the former Perishable Theatre), is irreverent, high-spirited, elusive, and frustrating. It is about a Victorian doctor named Wishniak who, if I understand correctly, summons, confronts, and destroys two embodiments of his opposing impulses: audacity, represented by an indefatigable mountain climber (Jed Hancock-Brainerd) whose motto is “Press on,” and indolence, personified in a sailor (Roblin Davis) who drifts happily where the tide takes him. There’s more to it than that, including an awkward but not unpleasant tea party, which the audience is invited backstage to enjoy, and a vivid attack on Wishniak and his wife (Rebecca Noon) by two wild animals (Davis and Hancock-Brainerd), which the audience is invited to intensify, but these events are better witnessed than read about. Put simply, there is nothing like Strange Attractor's work on any other stage in Providence, which may be reason enough to go see it – to experience performances of an utterly unique timbre, and to support artists committed to realizing a fervent and vital theatre.

Still, the show left me feeling strangely unmoved – cold, even. It is full of action – the play reaches manic peaks, the highest and most precarious being the climactic animal attack – but though it encourages the audience to move and even participate, it makes no such appeal to the heart, which remains inert and uninvolved. It eschews character, which means that there is no desire; without desire there is no conflict, which means that we, the audience, are compelled to make no moral commitment; so we neither suffer disappointment nor relish victory, which means that the events onstage unfold like weather observed through a window. Can the play be enjoyed similarly – as spectacle? (By which I mean not high drama but a morally neutral though nonetheless captivating depiction of movement.)
I think so; that may be how my fellow audience-members enjoyed it and, to judge by their enthusiastic responses, they enjoyed it very much.
And, moment to moment, the show captivates; but its project is, ultimately, terminal. In one scene, Dr. Wishniak demonstrates the many luxury qualities of his custom briefcase while a bear and a moose harass and taunt him. It’s a fantastical moment – bizarre, funny, nervy. But it seems to come from nothing, and it goes nowhere; there is neither motivation nor destination. Why is Dr. Wishniak so infatuated with his briefcase that he insists on describing it despite the danger he’s in? How are the moose and bear in his study anyway? As Wishniak, Aram Aghazarian is a pleasure to watch, but his performance is so understated that it can appear indifferent and tentative. Here, hemmed in by his attackers, he looks perturbed rather than terrified, and his voice hovers in a barely audible and unmodulating register. Perhaps this is meant to be absurdly funny; but to me, the arbitrary can only ever be so amusing. In this aura of anarchy there’s no exhilarating inversion of expectation – because the play establishes no expectation in the first place. Weirdness conjures only weirdness; nothing, as the philosophers say, comes from nothing.

Allegedly inspired by themes from the Henrik Ibsen epic Brand, A Terrific Fire averts its eyes from metaphysical landscapes to revel instead in colorful but barren silliness – a silliness that, though agitated, is never really troubling. It should be noted, however, that the plastic trees that comprise part of the set do evoke a kind of mysterious and melancholy forest primeval. Indeed, the set is the most finely realized aspect of the play. Dr. Wishniak’s study, decorated with bear skins and deer antlers, as well as an old radio, feels inhabited and inviting; it is also erected oppressively close to the audience, so that there is no escape: we in the audience feel as closely observed by the actors as they are by us. When the action takes the characters outside, the back wall of Wishniak’s study is swung back on hinges, revealing a dark expanse of snowy forest. One only wishes that the play itself were structured this way: a detailed and overbearing foreground, too close for comfort, occasionally giving way to an unfathomable and menacing subtext.