On The Verge by Eric Overmyer. Directed by Don Jordan.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Todd Hamilton; photo provided
"Never not short of pith"
Words fly like egrets in Eric Overmyer’s play "On The Verge" currently to be seen in North Adams, MA at Main Street Stage. Wrong words, instantly corrected, strong words, falling on the ground like duds, bouncing-ball words sung and intoned and chanted like out-of-date pop songs fill the room. Female words and he-male words and words that split the genders appear and disappear like magic in this play about three women explorers in 1888 who undertake an adventure that changes their lives in ways they never could have imagined possible.
Mary Baltimore, unmarried, played by Wendy Walraven, considers exploration her unescapable "calling." Africa is her area of expertise. The oldest member of the lady explorers' expedition, she is completely devoted to studying the future, from both an objective and subjective perspective.
Fanny Cranberry, married, played by Jennifer Mattern, is the most conservative of the group. She basically disapproves of everything she sees and hears in the future, finding it immoral but fascinating.
Alexandra Cafuffle, played by Justina Trova, is the youngest of the group. Encountering a new word, which happens constantly to her, she plays with it which constantly upsets and irritates her companions. Obsessed with Tibet, she is inexperienced with jungles, and wants to find the most enjoyable era for herself and start her life over. Every discovery temporarily enthralls her.
Along their journey in "Terra Incognita" they encounter eight odd characters, with Alexandra and Fanny ultimately settling down with two of them. All eight are played by Todd Hamilton which is both a good and bad thing. Hamilton has to be certain that each person he plays is unique and has a distinct personality, look, voice and so on. He almost succeeds in keeping this fun and interesting, but he loses out in one of the longest scenes in the play as a charismatic man called Mr. Coffee. This is perhaps the dullest stretch of this lengthy play by a playwright who has been the writer/producer responsible for scripts for "Treme," "St. Elsewhere," "The Wire" and other TV shows that depend on tension and suspense.
Tension and suspense are major factors in this play. Director Don Jordan is clearly aware of that. He has filled the stage with hand props and set pieces and ropes and pulleys and amazing artifacts of the human experience in the twentieth century. Each piece serves a purpose and mostly the purposes are the same: a revelation of some sort. In the small black-box theater that is Main Street Stage he uses every inch of the stage and the set in order to give his three leading ladies opportunities for personal discovery and heroic action. They stand up to, and lean over, an outraged Yeti. They crawl across a bridge enhanced by the audience while a bridge Troll outrages them with bad patter and song, taunts them with vague threats and maintains his Actor’s Studio stance and attitude in hilarious dialogue. Jordan keeps the scenes on the move as much as possible and even the black-out pauses for set changes keep up the suspense he tweaks over and over.
The three women do yeoman work in this play. Mattern’s Fanny is sensible and secure in her expedition goals until she realizes how dirty she has become in her jungle wanderings. Even here she maintains her odd dignity and it is only once she dons the clothing of 1955 that she loosens up even a little bit. The surprise with Mattern is how logically she makes the mental shift for her character.
Walraven is charming as Mary. Perhaps the most sensible of the three explorers, Mary could easily become the dullest character on stage. Not so in this performance. Walraven has a knack, it seems, for making the commonplace statement into the most interesting utterance. She also has a certain elan, a way of tossing things aside to make room for new ideas.
Trova’s Alexandra has the guts, the nerve, the incipient joy of discovery as she makes every new word, every new concept into the next "best" thing to ever have happened to her. Her strident voice and veritable strides make her into a near-parody of James Cagney’s George M. Cohan portrayal. However, when she makes you laugh, it is a genuinely achieved laughter. The only one of the three women who approaches the "top," but never goes over it, Trova emerges with Alex becoming the most intriguing character of the bunch. For me her obsession with Burma Shave was the happiest conceit of the play.
Todd Hamilton plays Mr. Coffee like a somnambulist which is absolutely wrong. It’s a pity because that scene with him and Fanny is a key to the play’s outcome and the key here is lost in a much larger lock that is never touched by the metallic insert that clearly doesn’t exist. The rest of his characters are delectable and fun and he even gets away with his 1950s night club singers style.
An intriguing set has been designed by Juliana Haubrich with generally fine costumes by Venessa Phelon. Frank LaFrazia’s lighting leaves something to be desired, but often he gets the moods right if not the effects.
Don Jordan’s production of "On The Verge" is a quirky, lengthy, amusing and irritating showpiece that makes you think and makes you question and leaves you fascinated with the whole idea of fascination and exploration and how they go together. It also leaves you wondering what it would be like to walk through time, able to stop when you’re satisfied and continue on when you’re not. That’s a different thing to take away from a play.
On The Verge plays at Main Street Stage in North Adams, MA through October 30. Tickets are $10 and $15. For information and to purchase tickets call the box office at 413-663-3240.