Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Virtual Reality" & Observatory Conditions"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Larry Stark

"Virtual Reality"
"Obseratory Conditions"

These two plays --- as different as night and day or as masks of comedy and tragedy --- are perfectly wedded in this Hovey Players double-bill. Each one deals with uncertainty and choice, the first in a hilarious mime-fest, the other uses scientific theories applied with a searingly human honesty. Different though they are, both plays take full advantage of the "virtually" flawless acting and attention to detail which are a Hovey Players' tradition. But they are so different as to deserve two separate reviews: Michael Tonner, who was the producer of "Virtual Reality" and both he and John MacKenzie created those wonderful sound effects.

"Virtual Reality"

by Alan Arkin
Directed by Kim Anton

Produced by Michelle Aguillon
Assistant Producer Helene Anderson
Light & Set Design by Russ Fletcher
Sound Design by Joe Rivers
Sound Effects by Michael Tonner & John MacKenzie
Stage Managers Margaret Umbsen, Faye Byron

De Recha..........Jason Myatt
Lefty..........Jason Yaitanes

It's possible that Alan Arkin, after seeing or perhaps even playing in Pinter's "The Dumb Waiter" came out saying "Hell, I could do that" and then went home and wrote "Virtual Reality". Arkin's take also begins with two nervous, shady characters meeting to do an always unspecified "job". The two bicker about everything, beginning with how Lefty (Jason Yaitanes) can "identify himself" when he left all identification at home, and things only get worse from then on. De Recha (Jason Myatt) is the in-the-know leader, demonstrating his brief authority as a stickler for order. Again and again he suggests miming "practice sessions" and then pushing the idea so far toward the edge of absurdity that Lefty rebels.

The Two Jasons --- as Hovey legends have christened them --- are perfectly matched, and their twisting arguments have been sandpapered by Director Kim Anton. At one point De Recha has Lefty pulling invisible equipment from an invisible crate, then checking them against an equally invisible bill-of-lading he holds in his hand. Lefty identifies more and more unlikely specimens, getting more and more bewildered about just what sort of "job" he has agreed to do --- as does the audience as well.

This play plays with the sheer magic make-believe of theater, calling forth virtual objects and bones of contention, with one sudden, startling addition: sound. When Lefty misses an invisible key De Recha tosses him to open an invisible box --- there is a tinkle as it bounces on the floor! Sound Operator Laura Dorson fits her few cues so deftly into the action they add a whole new dimension to the play's "reality"!

All in all, another "average" Hovey Players' triumph...

"Observatory Conditions"

by Katherine Snodgrass
Directed by Jerry Bisantz

Produced by Michelle Aguillon
Assistant Producer Helene Anderson
Lighting & Set Design by Russ Fletcher
Sound Design by Joe Rivers
Stage Managers Margaret Umbsen, Faye Byron

Eleanor............Sheila Rehrig
Nickie...........Jacquelyn Maher
Michael..........Stephen Collins

Embedded in Katherine Snodgrass' beautiful play are brief lectures explaining Chaos Theory, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Finkelstein's Barrier, and Schroedinger's Cat. These speculations about scientific reality on edges of the micro- and macro-cosmos serve to set up questions about the reality of memories and the inevitability of choices in life, so that this unremittingly dramatic confrontation of present and past is riddled with metaphors and maybes.

The scene is the control-room of a major research telescope, with the results of years of theoretic research hinging on a clear-sky observation of a distant galaxy, on a night of scattered clouds. This is a last-chance for an astronomy professor to prove her life's work valid.

But reality here is very much in flux. The show opens with a distraught Eleanor (Sheila Rehrig) cursing out her doltish students and the head of her department who, learning she's about to die of an inoperable brain cancer, terminated both her job and her health benefits.

But is that true here? Isn't it just as likely that the play takes place entirely inside Eleanor's head? Despite the cluttered desks and computer-monitors, couldn't everything be a fever-dream?

The surface of reality is further disturbed when an uppity young student (Jacquelyn Maher) --- who is not on Eleanor's roster --- barges in seeking advice about a paper, and then pugnaciously revealing herself as a child given in infancy for adoption, and demanding acceptance from her neglectful mother.

Was her mother Eleanor, or her sister Margaret who signed the wrong name on a birth certificate? Who chose to terminate motherhood so soon after birth?

Stephen Collins steps into the action, first delivering those short science lectures, then playing a possible father in memory-flashbacks that may or may not be true.

Despite the beautiful ambiguities, the passionate clash of maybe-mother and maybe-child about exactly who owes who what seesaws here throughout the play. Did a choice twenty or so years ago condemn both to be what they are now? Can past wrongs be obviated by present forgiveness? Is the sacrifice of years of motherhood necessary in order to nail down an obscure fact observed on the edge of the universe?

One thing about the show is certain: the playing is breathtakingly superb. There are moments when Sheila Rehrig's distraught face, frozen and imobile while her possible daughter states her case, is a heart-rending mask of graphic emotion. And young Jacqelyn Maher, convinced she must collect her pound of flesh, feels her resolve crack upon occasion, when remembered facts contradict her own world-view. Both women, after all, need recognition and love --- one for a past of ambiguity and pain, one for the ordeals of her possibly brief future.

Let me end with this final ambiguity: these two plays must have been well-directed, because Jerry Bisantz' and Kim Anton's contributions to the whole never intrude on the illusion that all five actors are living their roles as the lines unfold. And that is yet another Hovey Players' tradition.


"Virtual Reality" & "Observatory Conditions" (17 January - 1 February))
Abbott Memorial Theater, 9 Spring Street, WALTHAM MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide