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Stage Review: Argonne at Annex Theater

September 6, 2013

Argonne-Arsinoe and the deerARGONNE
By Kaitlin Murphy and Evan Moritz
Through September 9 at the Annex Theater

The Annex Theater is a low-budget operation. That’s reflected in the group’s inexpensive sets, uncomfortable seats, and under-rehearsed performers. This can lead to underwhelming productions, but it doesn’t have to. This past February, for example, the Annex put on a terrific production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus at its former downtown location. The horse heads that topped half the cast may have been fashioned from brown-cloth fragments folded and glued, but they were strikingly handsome nonetheless. The 15-member cast was uneven but a couple of strong leads and a strong directorial vision by Mason Ross pulled everyone up to a higher level.
By contrast, the new Annex production of Argonne at the group’s new space in Station North is definitely underwhelming. Once again, the set, props and costumes are fashioned from cheap and found materials, but they seem slapped together rather than transformed into a visual concept. Once again the cast is uneven, but this time there’s no strong direction to create a unified performance. Each actor takes a different approach to the show, and each one goes in and out of focus at different times. And this time, instead of a proven play, the show is based on a new script that seems more like a first draft than a finished product.
That first draft contains some intriguing ideas that the two writer-directors, Kaitlin Murphy and Evan Moritz, might want to develop. Argonne takes place in an unidentified year sometime in the future, in an unidentified place. It’s a rural area, where the local ranchers raise deer with piped-in water because there hasn’t been regular rainfall for decades. The environmental movement has spurred the government to launch a reforestation project nearby to restart the water cycle again. And in the play’s opening scene, those efforts pay dividends with the first rainfall in 10 years. Arsinoe (Lizz King), a 10-year-old girl in long dark braids, is delighted to encounter the first rain of her lifetime, and so is her science teacher (Carly Bales).
Less enthralled is the teacher’s husband, the local bartender (Adam Endres) who finds half his home washed away by the flash flood. He’s even grumpier when he and his wife have to move in with Arsinoe’s rancher father (Dave Iden), who rekindles an old romance with the teacher. Oblivious to the romantic triangle under her roof, Arsinoe attributes the tension to her father’s dust-triggered lung cancer and goes hunting for a cure. She finds she can talk to animals, and they lead her to the rare plant that might heal her dad.

In other words, this isn’t a futuristic allegory where the environmentalists are unalloyed saints and the anti-environmentalists are unalloyed villains; this is a tale of flawed individuals trying to cope with external pressures. And there are moments when the play threatens to come alive—as when Arsinoe is discovering that rain has its own smell or when her father and her teacher are pawing each other tentatively, guiltily. But these scenes are matches in the wind that the production is unable to keep alight long enough to start a fire. A clumsy transition, an actor’s loss of focus or an uncooperative puppet is usually enough to snuff out the flame.

The stage is dominated by a white scrim with its ugly pinewood frame facing toward rather than away from the audience for some reason. Projected upon this scrim are film, slides, shadow puppets and the actors’ silhouettes. The actors as well as three-dimensional puppets of a deer, turtle, and crow also emerge in front of the scrim. Handled more gracefully, this variety of visual cues could be a strong element in the play’s storytelling. But there were too many technical snafus, too many sudden jerks of the puppets, too many fingers obtruding onto the slides to allow any suspension of disbelief.

The one puppet that did work was that of the deer that leads Arsinoe through the forest. Puppeteer Kelvin Pittman manipulates a papier-mâché deer head with one hand with six papier-mâché rings draped over his arm to represent the neck. Pittman makes the puppet seem so lifelike that you watch the animal’s face and not Pittman’s at all times. More successes like this one would have helped the show immensely.

Maybe the playwrights Murphy and Moritz will rework their script to allow the short vignettes more time to develop an emotion and to flow into the next more smoothly. Maybe the company will improve their use of puppets and multi-media so the audience pays less attention to the awkward manipulation and more attention to the creatures and landscapes being evoked. Maybe the actors can learn to stay in character from the moment they appear on stage till the moment they exit and not just when they deliver lines. If all this happens, maybe the Annex can bring Argonne back in a few years and give it a better shot at drawing the audience into the story. â–