The Austin Chronicle

Arts Review

Reviewed by Adam Roberts, March 2, 2012, Arts

The 21 Would-Be Lives of Phineas Hamm

Blue Theatre, 916 Springdale, 684-3220
Through March 4
Running time: 1 hr., 45 min.

In The 21 Would-Be-Lives of Phineas Hamm, playwright Rachel McGinnis asks her audience to consider what might occur were a new life readily available at our fingertips. What if, with a simple flick of the wrist, we could escape life's threatening, painful, and inconvenient moments, sure in the knowledge that we'd find ourselves in a new reality within a matter of seconds? It sounds like an inviting proposition on the surface. But through the series of vignettes that make up her play, McGinnis (who also serves as director and costumer for this Paper Moon Repertory premiere) reminds both observer and protagonist that propositions can often hold hard consequences that far outweigh potential gains.

As a present on his 25th birthday, Phineas' mother gifts her son his father's workshop. The elder Hamm passed away when Phineas was a boy, after creating a vestlike apparatus that transports the wearer to an alternate life when its lever is flipped. He left his old life for a new one, and Mrs. Hamm found her husband's contraption-clad torso slumped over his workbench. In the intervening years, she's recognized Mr. Hamm's curiosity and skill in her son and decided that the only thing to do was grant Phineas access to his father's inventions. Naturally, Phineas dons the vest and flips the lever. From that point onward, he's catapulted from one life to another as he escapes situation after situation that he finds unbearable. In the end, Phineas must make a difficult choice that forces him to evaluate the impact of his lever-happy actions on those who have loved him in each life.

It's a great premise for a theatrical piece, and in many instances here, McGinnis and her actors succeed in engaging observers in the questions they raise. (Full disclosure: Chronicle Arts writer Elizabeth Cobbe served as the production's dramaturge.) Given some additional tweaking and workshopping, Phineas has great potential to find its own additional lives beyond this current one. Revisiting the piece for greater consistency of balance and tone would help remedy its current issues of pacing and, at times, confusion about what the play wants to be. Yet a defining kernel is very much evident at the play's core, and both McGinnis' costumes and the fantastic set of Ia Ensterä bring to life its conceptual framework reminiscent of a Moulin Rouge-meets-Sweeney Todd mash-up. Megan Reilly's lighting enhances the Brechtian side of things, and David Meissner's collaboration with McGinnis on the show's excellent props contributes to an especially high-quality overall design. Highly stylized choreography by Kaitlyn Moise does its part to contextualize and support the narrative, though occasionally it feels cramped in the Blue's tight quarters.

Phineas' band of actors is, for the most part, especially strong. Gabriel Peña leads the cast with vigor in the titular role, and his castmates feed off this energy to create an often honest, sincere picture of the trials and tribulations of a not-so-easy way out.

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