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Monday, May 5, 2008

Review- Boxed In (Project Oriented Productions)

The Fab Marquee review by Peyton Wise.

The marketing for Boxed In, a presentation of two one acts by Project Oriented Productions, describes it as ‘fighting against a stagnant country of 88 hour work weeks and $8 cups of coffee.’ That may have been the writers’ impetus, but the plays inspire questions more than they impose answers. In both plays, someone is crazy, but I honestly don’t know who, myself included.

The first piece, Cornered, portrays a manic first-day orientation of an artist-turning-checkout-girl at Cornerworld, a superstore for Styrofoam packaging corners. (The description of how Cornerworld replaced dusty old mom and pop corner stores is one of the many surprise laughs scattered through the piece). The orientation is driven by Roberta (playwright Kellie Arens), an obsessive employee-handbook thumper who argues with stuffed animals as she charges through a litany that includes requiring the applicant to change her hair color and lose her pregnancy. We begin to wonder, however, at the sanity of Fawn (Melissa Derfler), the Goth artist for sticking around. When Roberta breaks her to the point of forcing her to scream “art is useless,” the audience, clearly comprised of artists, can’t help shifting in their seats.Cornered has many surprises, both in the staging and the writing. Both set the groundwork early for punches that come around at the end of the play. If the intention is to build to a frenzy, however, it is sabotaged by the middle section. After the situation and tone are established, both continue without escalation. During this time, one can’t help but wonder why Fawn stays, despite having her hand on the doorknob while being insulted and why the lights keep changing so abruptly. Despite these limitations, the play has some interesting thoughts and Arens and Derfler find some fun comedic moments. At the performance I saw, Arens created from a prop problem one of the funniest moments in the play.

The second piece, Transit, is quite simply a remarkable piece of theatre. Everything is so tightly honed it was like watching the Marx brothers via Meyerhold. The simple tools offered by lights, two actors, and some boxes onstage were used to create fractal worlds. The actors were so in tune and the mime so sharp- at one point an actor picked up a discarded ‘prop’ from the exact place the other had thrown it- that I began to believe I must be crazy to not see props and scenery that were so clearly there.

The play begins with two men in coveralls, waiting for a train to come. They play games waiting for it to come and as they do, we begin to realize this may not be the limbo of a train platform, but of some form of incarceration. Sam (playwright Jonathan Albert) is a Gump-like younger brother, deeply affected by the moods of the moodier and more sinister Pat (Anthony Crep). As the games merge with murkier aspects of their pasts, the actors play hide and seek on a dizzying path of tonal switchbacks. Albert and Crep execute the turns in perfect unison, playing off each other and in a Beckettian pas-de-deux. Either performance is impressive; together they are stunning.

Director Cristina Alicea keeps a sharp control of the reins, shaping pace and focus by eliminating any extraneous movement or element. The set of white boxes is used to shape movement without marking place. The lights change subtly to bring us into each world without defining what we’re about to experience. At one point, the exit light is put to the best use I’ve ever seen. (The performance of No Exit with a clearly marked upstage fire exit must now take second place.) The entrance of sound is so unobtrusive that it’s only noticed when it changes for a powerful final reveal.

Absurdism, like many 20th century isms, has often been remembered only for its repudiation of conventional structure. Transit is so successful because the playwright and director create their own structure, rather than justify whimsy with ‘carte absurde’. Audiences may not know the play’s rules, but can feel that they and the actors are supported by it. The actors are not trying to justify outlandish choices with mania and the audience can trust that the end will not betray what’s gone before. In fact, this hidden structure is a theatrical metaphor for the bastard existentialism that prompted Absurdism. Pat and Sam follow a track laid out according to rules they don’t know, vacillating from rage to joy to fear, with a predetermined ending, while we struggle to connect any clues to a universal picture that includes us.

Project Oriented Productions presents
Boxed In
May 1-18, 2008 (Thu-Sat @8pm; Sun@3pm & 7pm).
The Royal Theatre (The Producers Club).

Tickets: $18 available online at

The Royal Theatre (The Producers Club) | 358 West 44th St. | Manhattan.

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