Saturday, November 17, 2007

PLAY: "Theft of Imagination"

Diplomacy, like theater, is the art of the possible: it's an act of convincing an audience, captive or otherwise, of something that does not necessarily exist. In the case of Theft of Imagination, it's a hard battle, considering that this free production, part of the PEACE ON WAR festival, is done largely with no set and an occasionally exaggerated cast. But it's also a leap of imagination well worth taking, as David Negrin's script is a sharp series of clashes between the diplomats of two opposite (but all the more similar) countries on the brink of war, and a well-planned parallel between the idealism of the youthful negotiators and their aggressive and adult handlers. And though Kat Chamberlain (who co-directs with Negrin) has little to work with on set, she plays up the split-screen action of the two sides very nicely: she really only needs a fight choreographer and some better sound effects.

Aside from a lackluster opening by a blustering priest straight out of Shakespearean dinner theater (Brad Russell), Theft of Imagination benefits most from its pacing. It opens with an ultimatum (there will be thirteen days to make peace, or the nations will go to war), quickly introduces the diplomats (an introverted boy and an outgoing boy), and then plunges them into high-stakes negotiation. Negrin's references to chess and diplomatic strategy (references to "blocks" and "cascades" are thrown around, as well as "misappraisal") keep the talks interesting, and the differences in character keep them dramatic. And don't be fooled by their archetypal names: though they begin committed to their "names," it isn't long before Outgoing Boy (Max Hambleton) is using more than his laid-back mouth, or before Introverted Boy (Kit Redding) learns to think with his heart and not just his mind.

As the days pass in a flurry of proposals and counterproposals, the two slowly begin to form a friendship, only to find that their handlers aren't looking for peace. This is where Negrin falls into a theatrical trap: he pads (unnecessarily, as it turns out) the handlers out, giving them a series of conversations outside the conference room where they speak about their hopes and insecurities. But in the second act, those characters become less human and more mechanical, with their words becoming just that -- words -- with no motivation or conviction behind them. Whereas Christopher Hurt is able to show growth (ironically, as the Outgoing Boy's Handler, he is the rigid and gaunt one), Angus Hepburn is locked into a sly and increasingly smug role. Their lines become the stuff of cheap television dramas: "If they stay on the path...." [conspiratorial pause] "Then we shall have to place land mines." As father-figures, guiding their children, they are humanized and all the more mysterious; outside of that, they're just villains.

I make these suggestions because at two and a half hours, the show runs a little long. There aren't enough subplots to require such length, and there are more than a few scenes (especially toward the end) that start to feel redundant, and while Negrin finds dozens of ways for his Introverted Boy to say "no" (he even turns it into a fun little game), the centralized action of the play doesn't give him the room to expand his initial parallels. Theft of Imagination ends up relying overly on the charisma of Mr. Hambleton and his character's outside-the-box thinking: if it can remain fair and balanced, it'll be an even better play.

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