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“Theater of the Uncomfortable” is Annie Baker’s style in THE ANTIPODES at Road Less Traveled

THE BASICS: THE ANTIPODES, a play by Annie Baker, directed by Scott Behrend, starring Sean Cullen, Cassie Cameron, Kristen Tripp Kelley, Greg Howze, John Hurley, David Marciniak, Ricky Needham, Dave Hayes, and Adam Yellen continues through February 9, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2 at Road Less Traveled Theater, 456 Main Street (629-3069). Runtime: Depending on what you consider “the start” it’s close to two and a quarter hours with one intermission (full service bar, snacks).

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: In a windowless, modern, corporate conference room, seven writers, under the direction of a strong-willed, egotistical lead writer/manager named Sandy are “brainstorming” in an attempt to come up with the ultimate, new, never before told “universal” story for a future “show” but what kind of show we’re never told. Some have worked with Sandy before, and some are new, but to build a sense of equality, openness, and team camaraderie, Sandy has the group share their personal stories about their first sexual encounter and later about their biggest regret. Along the way, the black writer and the female writer’s ideas are ignored, sycophants suck up, and in the end, we wonder “what was that all about?”

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: To quote Macbeth: “Life is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Ms. Baker is no idiot; far from it (see below). So, what’s going on? It’s hard to say.

On the way out of the theater, one audience member remarked “Well, that’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back.” At the end of Pirandello’s 1920’s “absurdist” play SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR the Director/Manager character concludes: “To hell with it all. Never in my life has such a thing happened to me. I’ve lost a whole day over these people, a whole day!”

In “The Theater of the Absurd” (all the rage in the 1950s) life, though full of sound and fury, has no purpose or meaning, communication ultimately breaks down, and there is no dramatic “arc.” People talk, do mundane things, many of the situations and dialog are funny, but in the end, things just circle around to end up pretty much where they started.

Folks who remember Road Less Traveled Productions winter 2013 production of Annie Baker’s CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION may recognize some aspects of that previous play: characters in a windowless room are encouraged by a central authority figure to share their intimate life stories, they are indeed interesting stories, it looks as if something might be happening, maybe some growth, insight, and possible romance, but no, everyone ends up pretty much where they started. Some have dubbed her work “Theater of the Uncomfortable” or “Theater of the Mundane.”

Without a doubt, Baker has a brilliant mind. That’s not just my opinion. In 2017 she became a MacArthur Foundation fellow (receiving what is popularly known as, even though the foundation hates the term, a “genius grant”). They wrote: “In mining the minutiae of how we speak, act, and relate to one another, Baker captures the humor, absurdity, and tragedy that result from the limitations of language and our fraught search for more meaningful human connections.”

In mining the minutiae of how we speak, act, and relate to one another, Baker captures the humor, absurdity, and tragedy that result from the limitations of language and our fraught search for more meaningful human connections.

Baker teaches theater in the New York City area and is well versed in the theories of plots and the history of communication. If you enjoyed watching the PBS series hosted by Bill Moyers about Joseph Campbell titled “The Power of Myth” you may recognize some of the dialog as the writers try to decide if all the stories have been told. So how many stories are there? One, two, three, four, six, seven, 19, 36? The writers at the table discuss them and provide, both in their responses to Sandy’s questions, as well as simply watching them in action the [fill in the number of your choice] plots. Listed in the program, are journalist Christopher Booker’s “The Seven Plots” which are: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Rebirth, Comedy, Tragedy.

Not only is Baker a MacArthur “genius” her play THE FLICK won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 2014 beating out the other two nominated finalists: THE (CURIOUS CASE OF THE) WATSON INTELLIGENCE by Madeleine George which will be presented by Road Less Traveled Productions later this season (April 23 through May 17, 2020) and FUN HOME by Lisa Kron and Janine Tesori which many enjoyed over at Shea’s 710 Theatre as produced by MusicalFare Theatre just last May. Good company to keep. And, speaking of good company…

This is one very talented cast and crew, starting with Katie Menke’s Sound Design. From the moment you enter the theater you are bombarded with the worst elevator music ever. It’s like being on-hold in hell and as you look through the one door to the excellent set, the back wall is red, with a gray trim sloping down, down, down. That’s not a criticism. I think Menke knew exactly what she was doing. Music and SFX come back as needed. The set by Lynne Koscielniak is simply perfect, with a large, somewhat detailed conference table while overhead are suspended ceiling tiles with a four-sided ceiling vent and even a smoke alarm. Such attention to detail!

And the actors, all of them, were completely believable. That is one very experienced crew on stage, and, as mentioned in many previous reviews, when it all seems so “natural” and the actors aren’t “acting,” but rather just being themselves, then you look to the director who made that happen, and that’s Scott Behrend.

So, Annie Baker writes “theater of the absurd,” or “theater of the mundane,” or “theater of the uncomfortable.” Yup. All of that, and a whole lot more that went over my head. Give this play a shot, if only to watch a really find theater company.

UP NEXT: HAND TO GOD, by Robert Askins, which has young Jason, a “nice boy,” putting on a puppet show for his church. The problem is that the puppet is lewd, profane, combative, and refuses to leave Jason’s arm. Up March 5 through 29.

THE (CURIOUS CASE OF THE) WATSON INTELLIGENCE by Madeleine George runs at RLTP from April 23 through May 17.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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