Future speak

On the Verge, or The Geography of Yearning

By Eric Overmyer
Directed by James Alexander Bond
WATTS Collaborative
Sande Shurin Studio Theater
311 West 43rd Street, 6th fl. (560-5629/www.smarttix.com)
Non-union production (closes May 12)
Review by Jonathan Shandell

Imagine, if you will, a strange world without boundaries of time or space, a "terra incognita" where intrepid explorers dance to the hypnotic fugue of a language that is familiar yet also strangely foreign. On the Verge follows a trio of 19th-century American women as they stumble upon the future and marvel at the wonders of a civilization to come. They discover strange substances like "cream cheese," "Cool Whip," and "Burma Shave"; they hear of strange residents with names like Mrs. Butterworth, President Nixon, and Mr. Coffee; they grapple with objects from egg-beaters to motorcycles; and they struggle to decipher perplexing messages and mantras: "The Red Chinese," "Give me some skin," and most tantalizingly, "I Like Ike!" In Overmyer's vision, the movement of time draws American society deeper and deeper inside a dizzying vortex of progress and punditry-where an explosion of innovation travels hand-in-hand with a white noise of new clichés, catch phrases, and marketing slogans. Today (more than a quarter-century after On the Verge debuted), our culture of megabytes and megastores, silicon chips and silicone implants, continues to prove Overmyer's vision prophetic. And heck, who can imagine what sort of gadgets our children will be playing with, or what nonsense might come out of their mouths?

WATTS Collaborative's journey into this strange and delightful drama began on some relatively sure footing. David Eisler's set framed the voyage in a swirling, off-kilter arrangement of latitude lines, compass vectors, and a series of almost (but not quite) concentric circles. The trio of Jeannie Dalton, Maria Rusolo, and Aransas Thomas seemed comfortable (at first) with the rhythm and pace of Overmyer's linguistic mélange. Jesse Teeters delighted throughout with his varied assortment of cameo characters. But the more the evening at the Sande Shurin Studio Theater unfolded, the more this ensemble struggled visibly with the contours and variations of their theatrical terrain. Technical hiccups became obvious, as actors fumbled with their numerous props and adjusted ill-fitting costumes (no designer listed). Hans W. Shoop's unremarkable lighting effects were often out of sync with actors' movements. Choreographer Paul Thompson's dance breaks grew stale and awkward, and went on for far too long.

But these shortcomings were all derivatives of a larger problem. Somehow, in staging this play about exploration and discovery, director James Alexander Bond seemed to have ceased most of his creative explorations quite early in Act One. Rather than push movement, diction, and tempo into unexplored and precarious territories, his central trio of actors settled into familiar cadences of speech, gesture, and mannerism that verged on monotony. In a play that destabilizes all objective notions of geography, actors' movements repeatedly followed the same circuitous route around the stage. For a drama that puts time into a blender, pacing was disappointingly unvaried. Only Thomas, as the older, wiser, and ultimately restless Mary seemed to find a measure of mastery over, and creativity within, the play's linguistic landscape; her two fellow explorers seemed largely out of their element. And so this work that should consistently surprise and delight-just as cream cheese and Xeroxes might have astounded and seduced an unsuspecting Victorian lady-emerged as largely flat and uninspired, like a plain vanilla sundae without that enticing Cool Whip.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 0

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Copyright 2002 Jonathan Shandell