American Berserk Theatre's Subject to Control
This Austin theatre company's debut is a heady, funny treat, smuggling heavy ideas in a light package
Reviewed by Shanon Weaver, Fri., May 27, 2016
Subject to ControlSalvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd.
Through June 4
Running time: 1 hr., 40 min.
An unknown calamity befalls our sun, leaving no plants or animals left alive. The remainder of humanity seeks refuge at a research facility, in which it is discovered that some survivors have an aptitude toward metaphysical power – but only when paired with certain others: Conduits and Conductors. A series of highly regimented control experiments seek to tap into the power of the human will, with the hope that we can eventually change the very nature and fabric of reality, saving us from certain doom.
Sounds like some Herbert/Heinlein-level intellectual sci-fi, right? It is.
It's also, for lack of a more appropriate term, funny as shit.
Kaci Beeler and Curtis Luciani (the playwrights, actors, and two-thirds of the newly formed American Berserk Theatre, along with director Rob Yoho) have between them a stunning list of improv, comedy, and devised theatre credits. Subject to Control is the result of six months of devised work, infusing philosophical, post-apocalyptic/dystopian fare with the kind of comedy that results from paying fierce attention to the honesty of human nature. In broad terms, Beeler and Luciani have created what I can describe only as "cerebral slapstick." We begin on a stark, gray, clinical-feeling set that serves as the living space for a Conduit (Beeler). An old-school overhead projector displays the rules of the play's world during pre-show, and the whole affair at first seems suspect – like we're about to endure an hour and a half pummeled from an Orwellian nightmare message. So serious is the initial vibe of the play that the audience takes a while to realize it's okay to laugh. But as a tone sounds and the Conduit wakes, having minimal time to complete various tasks before the next tone, we're immediately enthralled by Beeler's embodiment of the character. Innocent and curious, every motion, every line, every motivation deeply rooted – a true symbiosis of actor and character.
When Luciani's Conductor enters to begin the day's research, we are treated to a truly talented comedic duo. Luciani is excitable and charming but maintains his control of the situation, establishing for the audience where the power is. As the days and months of research go by, however, the play begins to experiment with those power dynamics; indeed, the play is as much about the transfer of power between characters as it is a hilarious exploration of the human condition under such trying circumstances. As the Conduit exercises her free will and begins to experience just what it is to be a human being – mentally and, ahem, physically – we are treated to a skillfully sculpted naivete that leads to genuine, beautiful discovery. The energy put into creating these characters is palpable; each actor fully embraces moments of agency and urgency, and the comedy comes from an increasingly honest place. Yoho's direction serves the actors well, a keen third set of eyes to polish and hone what Luciani and Beeler so painstakingly craft.
Subject to Control is definitely a thinking comedy, kinetic and thoughtful throughout. It's difficult to write more without getting into the specifics of the performances, which are likely better experienced than described, but there's more dancing, English nursery rhymes (kind of?) and, ah ... humping than one expects. Interestingly, I found myself musing afterward on the nature of what theatre can do when the right message is paired with the right delivery system, smuggling heavy ideas – metaphysics, philosophy, etc. – in light packages. The play is serious only when it needs to be, despite the situation and the stakes, and there is an odd comfort found in that. American Berserk Theatre has created quite a heady yet funny treat for us with its first outing, and I eagerly look forward to more.