House of Several Stories
Imagine That's inaugural Equity production is a House united by brilliance
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., Aug. 14, 2009
House of Several Stories
Through Aug. 23
Running time: 2 hr, 10 min
The subtitle of this A. John Boulanger play is "a tragedy in two acts of nonsense," but it's been called a lot of different things. Should you attend – and take it from me, you should – in the program you'll find a note from dramaturge Kasey Korth saying that the play has been called "an absurdist comedy"; that Isaac Byrnes, who directed the first reading of the play, called it "a hilarious tragedy"; and that the author thought he was writing a "wacky comedy." Korth chooses not to categorize the play but says that, ultimately, "it is up to you, the audience member, to decide."
Well, since it's up to me, I'll tell you what I think it is: one of the few examples of purely American absurdism I've come across outside of Edward Albee. Martin Esslin coined the term "theatre of the absurd" in the Sixties to describe plays being written by, among others, Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Harold Pinter. Korth says that "absurdist characteristics could include lack of a specific time, generically named characters, and confusion between real happenings and a dream/nightmare world," most of which you'll find in House. But I'd go even further and say that absurdism is not just about a confusion of meaning but about a total lack of meaning, brought about by human inability to truly communicate and connect.
And that's exactly what you'll find in this inaugural Equity offering by Imagine That Productions at Austin Playhouse: a group of family members that either aren't listening to or aren't even hearing one another. There's a consistent disconnect between what one person says and how the person listening responds. This disconnect actually manifests during the show when the characters discuss some life-altering event and, quite suddenly, the lights onstage bump out and back up, at which point the characters repeat the same dialogue while changing a key fact. And while all that may not sound particularly entertaining, Boulanger, who also directs, weaves in his themes of the absent/dead father, the existent/nonexistent brother, and the barren/pregnant sister so skillfully that you'll find yourself making up the plot on your own as the actors go along.
And oh, what actors! Boulanger's absurd story requires not just a quick tempo but a manic one, and Lauren Lane as alcoholic mother Sue, Martin Burke as suicidal adopted son Bastian, and Meredith McCall as deluded sister Rissa are nothing short of phenomenal. Throw in Griffon Ramsey's generic American living room, lit with risky intensity by Jason Amato, and Jillan Hanel's costumes and Ramsey's wigs that recall the Fifties with satiric fondness, and you have an evening of sweet-as-candy entertainment.
Did I mention that the first act is nothing short of brilliant, both in its writing and in its execution? Did I mention that, for the majority of the show, I laughed myself silly? Did I mention that Lane has a fairy-tale monologue in the second act that will disturb you on multiple levels? Did I mention that you should get out to Austin Playhouse and see this absurdist wacky tragedy in two acts of hilarious comic nonsense?
I think I just did.