The Austin Chronicle

https://www.austinchronicle.com/arts/2003-09-19/178182/

Exhibitionism

Local Arts Reviews

Reviewed by Robi Polgar, September 19, 2003, Arts

'How Late It Was, How Late': Depicting Sightlessness With Theatrical Vision

The Off Center, through Sept. 28

Running Time: 1 hr., 45 min.

Sammy has just had the "shite" kicked out of him by a pair of Glasgow's nastiest police officers, who have brutally interrogated him about his meetings with a variety of lowlifes and potential threats to national security. But Sammy was just out for a "jar" at the pub, talking with whomever -- he can't recall whom -- repaying bought pints with the same, because that is what you do in a Scottish pub. The beating Sammy has taken at the hands of Scotland's finest has left him blind, and now, tossed out to fend for himself, the poor devil has to navigate his old world a sightless, semieducated ex-con. To make matters more confusing and irritating, his girlfriend has disappeared, someone has stolen his new boots, and the overzealous constabulary is keeping tabs on him. Throw in the humiliating and confusing bureaucracy of Britain's welfare state from which he's now forced to apply for help, and it's any wonder that Sammy gets by at all.

How Late It Was, How Late, adapted from James Kelman's novel by Kirk Lynn in a production created by the Rude Mechanicals (Sarah Richardson taking the directorial reins this time out), offers another occasion to praise the Rudes' creative theatrical vision to the skies. The production team has amped up the institutional discomfort of the play with a central screened-in playing area for Sammy that serves as a variety of prisons, from the man's cramped apartment to a police interrogation cell, while the outer walls of the theatre glare an industrial green -- the color of depressing health and human services offices the world over. The inner chamber is constructed of projection screens, and the Rudes use video to deftly imply the fragmented, often belligerent world through which Sammy is forced to shuffle. Sammy's milieu of confrontation and helplessness finds a forceful rendering with live video feeds of the other characters engaging him from various parts of the room. These others appear larger than life on the projection screens, talking down to Sammy, talking at him, talking through him -- no matter where the characters might be around the set, the interaction is in-your-face with an often claustrophobic immediacy. This is also a world of unexpected loud noises to shock and jar and jangle the nerves, and the sound score rumbles and weaves its decaying echo of slammed drawers, typed keystrokes, and rolling furniture. The whole environment is excellently executed and serves the storytelling right down to the stereophonic sawed-off mop head.

Even better than the setting is the acting, the standout performance being that of guest artist Dikran Utidjian, who brings a sort of quizzical, ever-awakening reality to Sammy. Utidjian is fairly bursting with life, even when Sammy is at his most morose, and Lynn's script gives the actor wide scope to explore the complex character. Robert Newell shines, too, in a variety of roles, most notably as the data-entry clerk at one of the myriad public-assistance programs. Lana Lesley plays the female roles solidly, though the script doesn't seem to offer the women of Glasgow as much depth as it bequeaths the men. In the role of "Boy," Ben Grimes serves as the sometimes narrator, a shaved-headed, mostly threatening presence; later he appears as Sammy's son, the eager Peter, wanting to help self-sufficient dad while growing increasingly intoxicated by his father's semifugitive status. Ah, the romance of life as an outlaw.

As grim as Sammy's situation sounds, the play is riddled with hilarity. With the exception of one 30-minute interrogation scene that is just plain boring, Lynn's script offers chunks of proselike passages and extended scenes that revel in details not ordinarily found in theatrical fare. If forward progress in the action slows down for some exploration of character, well, that's what novels do, and Lynn makes the material's transition from book to stage appear seamless. As we get to know Sammy better -- a semiskilled, working-class Glaswegian with former aspirations as a semipro soccer player in Essex and a desire to get to (of all places) Luckenbach, Texas -- the horror of his blinding by the authorities gives way to Sammy's own general ambivalence to his condition; indeed, toward the play's end he seems to accept the blinding as some sort of just deserts, prompting intriguing questions as to just what Sammy really knew that drove the police to such measures. Too bad he's not sticking around to say.

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