Thursday, April 08, 2010

Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War

The Mad Ones are crazy, but in the best possible way. Though their current motto is "Up with robots, Down with people," they haven't forgotten that every play needs some sort of human heart, and that's given them the freedom to pursue the sort of theater they'd like to make. Why not a play about Russian radio stars who like to sing American country songs and romanticize the good old days, you know, before giant robots tunneled out of the ground and destroyed America? Such is the thinking that leads to Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War, a sweetly apocalyptic tale.

Stationed amidst piles of old, analog radio equipment sits the Host (Joe Curnutte) of the At Home Field Guide, flanked by his acoustic guitarist Alexi "Tumbleweed" Petrovya (Michael Dalto), the lovely singer Anastasia (Stephanie Wright Thompson), and the resident genius, Dr. Mischa Romanav (Marc Bovino). None of them are quite what they once were, frazzled as they are by electrical outages and suspensions of train service, but they put on their game faces, playing whimsical sound effects even in the middle of a most-serious Science Saturday reminder of the Invasion.

So, why not tell a story? In this way, the bold mission of these radio hosts parallels the goal of the theater company--perhaps the goal of all artists--and what follows is as sincere as it is weird. "Amidst an invasion. But there was still love." It's very Golden Age in presentation and flourish, especially with the radio elements of Stowe Nelson's genius sound design, yet flush with hipster cred (particularly in Evan Prizant's costuming of Bovino) and Mike Inwood's dusky aesthetic, which deftly balances the necessary focus on language for the story-within-a-story, but still allows for the visual enhancements of the contemporary plot. Above all, it's so consistently handled--by director Lila Neugebauer--that we are sucked in to this alternate world, curious and eager and excited to see what will happen next.

It doesn't all work--sometimes the forced jollity comes across as too forced, and the back-stories of our Russian heroes are so meagerly developed that some of their glances and actions remain cryptic. But these are minor problems with the framing device: the central story, that of brothers Samuel and Alasdair and the girl they love--in the last months before the 1959 Invasion--is filled with enough parallels to propel the whole thing along. More importantly, this story (written by Bovino and Curnutte) is filled with wonderfully rich language--not dialogue, but miniature poems that entrancingly patter back and forth. One moment, a sort of haiku: "I’ll give you the facts: The fireworks in their eyes. Prairie grass at their knees. Music sifting from parked car windows." The next, a cleverly structured ode: "Susie lived down the road from us. Two houses and a barn between Susie and us. Two houses, a barn, a field, a window, a curtain, and a pebble tap between Susie and us." With all the repetition, onomatopoeia, and shifts in rhythm, the whole thing becomes like a song.

As the two stories--then and now--reach a sort of present-day collision, the tension in the theater continues to build, and there's an earned belief that anything may in fact happen. That's the sort of freedom that the Mad Ones earn by tackling their own type of story on their own terms, and it results in the best kind of theater: the surprising sort.

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