REVIEW

Tom Stoppard’s Darkside, incorporating Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon

the Garage Theatre, 2015-Aug-01

***WORLD PREMIERE STAGING (a big deal in the little berg of Long Beach)***

If you didn’t know otherwise, you would never guess that the Garage Theatre’s presentation Darkside is not merely their interpretation of this Tom Stoppard masterwork, but partly their own world-premiere creation. Darkside, you see, was written as a radio play, which director Eric Hamme and company have so effectively and affectingly forged into a live production that it comes off as if it was always meant for the stage.

Emily McCoy (Maribella Magaña) has a problem. She’s at university studying a bit of philosophy, and she’s increasingly troubled by her investigations into the status of the Good, particularly as highlighted in thought experiments proffered by Prof. Baggott (Paul Knox). Is it Good, for example, to divert a runaway train full of passengers from plunging off a cliff if in doing so you kill an innocent boy playing on the tracks? It’s a consideration that transports Emily from lecture hall to a murky, mountainous landscape, where she meets up with the now-deceased boy. They are soon joined by the superhero Ethics Man—it’s Baggott behind the mask—who floats down to earth after taking his doomed plane’s sole parachute, leaving his fellow passengers (a banker and a politician) to go down with the airship. “I was a utilitarian consequentialist,” Baggott explains, “but I’ve been forced to reexamine some deeply held convictions. “[…] Ethics Man is [now] a Nietzschean egoist. […] The rules are made by whoever has the will to make them.”

We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore, and for someone in search of the Good (Nietzsche wasn’t), such ratiocination doesn’t satisfy, so Emily treks ever deeper into the dark woods of her psyche, becoming her own sort of thought experiment, fantasizing how she might address the masses on the subject:

They know the world is fucked if something isn’t done. They know what has to be done. They don’t understand why nobody is really doing it. The system is locked somehow, they don’t know why. They’re looking up at me. Can Emily McCoy save the world? I explain it to them as if I’m talking to children. When I’m done [… t]hey sit there, stunned. But next day fucked-upness is on the turn, like floodwater starting to go down. Glaciers, rain forests, pollution, destruction, starvation…

“What do you say to them?” the Boy asks. “That’s the part I’m still working on,” she says. It’s intractable work, though, and it’s driving her mad.

Because Stoppard’s exploration of where to find the Good in a world without a reliable roadmap is relatively (i.e., for Stoppard) straightforward, you almost overlook its brilliance and beauty. But Hamme makes all the right moves to bring it home. One of the most powerful comes halfway through the odyssey (which is only an hour long), when Emily gets the chance to live out her fantasy—within her fantasy, at least—by addressing that mass of lost, searching humanity. From on high she holds forth passionately, mouthing words we hear as the wordless wailing of Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky”, a cry in the wilderness soaring to the heavens before melting down into the closing words of Emily’s plea:

The earth is a common. You can’t save it for yourself, but you can save it for others, and the others will save it for you. The other is us, and we are the other. We are of a kind. We are natural born to kindness, which means to act as our kind, as kin to kin, as kindred, which is to act kindly. What is the Good? It is nothing but a contest of kindness. To be unkind is against nature [… W]hen we live for trickery and gain, we turn against nature, and nature will turn against us.

As he makes his case for true humanity, Stoppard serves up the wit and repartee well familiar to fans, while making us care for Emily as a real, live individual. Baggott, too. He’s not just Ethics Man, but a soul increasingly troubled by the conundrums he’s been teaching all these years, particularly when he sees what they’re doing to his favourite pupil.

Not a little of the credit here goes to the actors. No matter the pith or moment, Magaña and Knox never speechify, encasing each word and idea in feeling flesh and blood. It is Knox as much as Stoppard who makes Baggott not simply Emily’s mentor but also a fellow sufferer; and Magaña communicates so viscerally in the play’s final scenes that the emotional substance could be grasped even if her articulations had no more literal meaning than the “Great Gig in the Sky” vocal.

All in all the acting is pitch perfect. Stoppard is so quick with substance that it’s important for a production to keep the audience hanging on every word, and the cast manages the trick throughout. The standout supporting role is Matthew Anderson as the Witch Finder of Emily’s fantasy and an asylum doctor back on this side of the rainbow. His menace as the former is palpable, a smoldering intensity you feel in your shoulders.

Anderson’s performance is one place in which Hamme’s Darkside differs sharply from the BBC Radio production (which aired in 2013). Whereas the BBC’s Witch Finder holds forth with a quick, jaunty wryness, Anderson’s pacing is so wrathfully slow that it would fall flat on the radio despite his riveting delivery, lacking as it would his commanding visual presence. Steven Frankenfield’s Boy is another point of departure, opting for youthful earnestness in lieu of the worldweary tone of the BBC’s Boy. Overplay this angle and the Boy would reduce to caricature, but Frankenfield never bends so far.

Despite the Garage Theatre’s limited budget and space, Hamme has so deftly created a visual component for Darkside that you half-expect that Stoppard’s script must have come with instructions, To be opened in case of staging emergency or some such. For example, when the Banker (Jeffrey Kieviet) and Politician (Craig Johnson) arrive on the scene (“everyone here [i]s a thought experiment”), Kieviet and Johnson move with perfect synchrony as they hold forth, embodying the insidious collusion intimated by their words. Another fine Hamme interpolation comes near the play’s end, when Emily and the Boy waltz to “Us and Them”, a touching moment in its own right and an evocation of Stoppard’s Arcadia apropos of Stoppard’s own Darkside evocations (The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, Chinatown) of our shared cultural milieu.

It is only because the Garage Theatre frames Darkside so finely that its minor imperfections show up on radar at all. Chief among them is relying upon the audience to suspend disbelief during a couple of scene changes requiring a moveable platform to be wheeled into position. Because Stoppard’s script flows from one scene to the next without a single break (the music of The Dark Side of the Moon connects many of the dots), ideally nothing visual would impede the aesthetic flow. But there’s simply nowhere to hide in the intimacy of the Garage. You can’t argue with any of Hamme’s blocking, though. Plus, the combination of music (raised to the perfect volume when it stands alone aurally), visual projections along three walls, and the always strong, occasionally spectacular lighting minimize the intrusions.

Elsewhere, Hamme and company have covered all the bases. The costuming is simple yet meticulous (Anderson’s Witch Finder outfit is immaculate), and the relatively few props in evidence, such as the many torn pages that litter the sandpit of a stage, are used by the actors to great effect.

While discussing the Garage Theatre’s challenges in their first-ever staging Darkside, Stoppard opined that every scene would difficult to stage, when not impossible. Nonetheless, the Garage has built upon Stoppard’s script an edifice wherein the playwright’s moving meditation on ethical civilization and its discontents comes into clearest view. Perhaps difficult or seemingly impossible tasks—such as finding a common locus for the Good—are not always as unobtainable as they seem.

Tom Stoppard’s Darkside, incorporating Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon • THE GARAGE THEATRE (251 E. 7th St., Long Beach 90813) • 8PM THURS–SAT, JULY 31–AUG 15, AUG 27–SEPT 19 • $15–$25 • TICKETS, INFO: thegaragetheatre.org

(Seating is VERY limited, so you best buy your tix in advance.)

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