Wednesday, June 06, 2007

PLAY: "Horizon"

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Playwrights who come right out and proclaim their play to be allegory are setting the bar rather high. Rinde Eckert's Horizon often hits the mark with panoramic observations on religion (based loosely on the philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr). At the same time, the vista of parables is so large that the endless devices are as confusing to the ear as they are pleasing to the eye. David Schweizer's direction comes as a sort of deliverance from the decadent cadences of Eckert's performance and interwoven texts; the end result is well-spoken but emotionally tame.

On the surface, we have Reinhart Poole (Eckert), an ethics professor teaching his final class at seminary: he has just been fired for his provocative lessons, the likes of which encourage doubt: "Doubt is how we maintain our faith," he intones, his voice a melodic brimstone, his face flickering with the sinister joviality of Forest Whitaker. "Belief without doubt undermines faith." Beneath that is the metadramatic novelty of two Irish masons, Jim and Harrison (Samuel and Beckett sound better), who serve as eternal builders (allegories) in the play Poole is writing. Deeper still, theatrical demonstrations of Poole's lectures on topics ranging from Plato's ever-popular cave (the set itself is within an aluminum-like cave) to a windowless house and the truth-telling devil. These miniature playlets, largely performed by the grandiose Howard Swain and the perfectly restrained David Barlow, end up being the meat of the play, both for Schweizer's image-heavy work and Eckert's point-hammering prose.

The danger that Poole describes when first defining allegory is unfortunately realized: the allegory becomes the story, and Poole's struggles with his runaway brother, spectral parents, and distant wife (Swain and Barlow, whispering into downstage microphones) are subsumed by the animated combinations of gospel and comic a capella or the vaudeville choreography of a old-fashioned showtune. At one point, Poole writes himself into the allegory, only to die and resurrect like a phoenix from a shroud. Luckily, Schweizer's modish, modern direction is well-poised for metaphor: cinder blocks, wood, and plastic are all transmuted by clever lighting.

According to the devil of one parable, "The nature of truth is to be despised but indispensable." With entertaining performances and beautiful scenework, Horizon is far from being despised. But it's also far from a "dangerous pulpit"; the story is so controlled (right down to the Gothic techno music) that we may admire more than think. Comfort is derived not from the absence of horses from a picture (given faith that they are just beyond the frame), but in the painting of a beautifully empty field itself. The view's terrific, but it's lonely way out here in allegory.

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