The Germ Project
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
June 20, 2011
In a 2009 study done by TDF on the state of the new American play, New Georges ranked among the top ten theatres nationwide named by playwrights as a leading producer of their plays. The Germ Project, which in other hands might have become a garden-variety evening of one-acts, showcases why, in all its messy, exciting, intricate, insanely complex glory. A compilation of four “germs”—twenty-to-thirty-minute more-or-less standalone segments from full-length plays commissioned by New Georges specifically to be unproduce-able—The Germ Project crackles with the energy of playwrights thinking impossible thoughts and having the joy of a team of designers, actors, directors, and honest-to-god producers committed to not just figuring out a way to finesse the improbable if absolutely necessary, but insisting upon doing so.
Moving from Alice in Wonderland via 1960s counterculture through the dreams and fears of a Dominican family in Florida to a backwoods Antigone and ending up with a fantasy-themed crime spree, the pieces cover a lot of disparate ground, held loosely together by the use of a repertory acting company, a single team of designers and a cleverly flexible playing space, a live band, and interstitial segments that lay a little groundwork for each piece.
The first, AliceGraceAnon by Kara Lee Corthron, is a fantasia on a piece of literary coincidence: the Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit,” supposedly written after Grace Slick read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland while on a drug trip, in turn inspired the title of Go Ask Alice, a notorious 1971 memoir (since determined to be probably fictional) about an anonymous young girl’s descent into drug addiction. Directed with vivid physicality by Kara-Lynn Vaeni, the play juxtaposes three stories—a metafictional version of Alice’s journey down the rabbit hole where Alice is aware of herself as a character in Lewis Carroll’s story; Anonymous’s fall into a druggy underworld; and Grace Slick’s compulsively extroverted ramblings. The three stories bounce off each other, echoing images or moments or bits of language, rather than intertwine directly; it’s very cleverly constructed, though to me the Alice and Anonymous threads were more inherently compelling than Grace Slick, despite Carolyn Baeumler’s bravura turn as Grace.
In Anna Ziegler’s lyrical Evening All Afternoon, a Dominican family struggles to make a better life for their bright, bored daughter, who’s drawn to a boy her parents fear will cause nothing but trouble, while lost and unfulfilled loves cloud the judgment of all the adults as well. It’s the most conventional piece of the four in terms of story and structure, firmly rooted in its characters and their yearnings; because of its delicate emotional evolutions and its measured storytelling, it probably stands up the least well to being excerpted, but sensitive performances (especially by mother and daughter Maggie Bofill and Charise Castro Smith) and beautiful moments of visual poetry in Beatrice Terry’s staging give it resonance.
Despite its title, This Is Not Antigone is, in fact, a spin on Antigone, set in hunting season in the working-class backwoods, with the teenaged Anne showing her defiance not by honoring the corpse of her brother, but by stealing the antlers off the carcass of her uncle’s recently killed trophy deer. Playwright Kathryn Walat uses stylized, staccato language to create a bridge between modern naturalism and classical idiom, and between two worlds: that of the ancient gods called on by her heroine and the “place the gods don’t give a shit about” modern setting. The piece has a kinetic, wild energy—which can occasionally veer into the overwrought—well channeled by director Portia Krieger and Anna Kull’s edgy performance as Anne.
And last but by no means least, there’s Lynn Rosen’s Goldor $ Mythyka: A Hero Is Born, a story of love and crime narrated and orchestrated by a DJ (the wonderful Matthew-Lee Erlbach), and shuttling between the real world of Eldrich, Indiana, and the mythic realms of a Dungeons and Dragons game. Jumping around in time, riffing deftly on its own theatricality, mixing the intoxicating power of fantasy with the sickening powerlessness of drab real life, and continually ramping up its own stakes, Goldor & Mythyka is a wild ride. Shoshana Gold’s clear-eyed direction helps ground the characters in a piece that could threaten to feel a little schematic and over-intellectualized.
It all makes for an intensely overstuffed ninety minutes of theatre, one that has challenges, delights, frustrations, and moments of wonder, but because of the clear care, thought, and commitment with which every aspect is treated, The Germ Project by and large succeeds in bringing out something essential in these strikingly different pieces. Is it an entirely satisfying realization of them? Of course not—because they are pieces, and some of them work better than others as freestanding excerpts. There are narrative loose ends, barely used characters, missing bits of internal logic. Does it hang together into a fully cohesive evening? It comes a lot closer than logic would dictate, and I don’t think it should come any closer than it does; making the pieces dovetail more neatly would probably require taming them somewhat, and that would be beside the point.
But on its own terms—as an introduction to these artists and these works, and as an injunction to not let theatre (especially indie theatre) fall into the trap of letting limitations define imagination—it’s something quite wonderful. Interesting resonances are created by the ways different pieces use the shared playing space and by the recurrences of certain actors in multiple pieces; throughout the evening, the strength of the acting ensemble makes us feel fully realized characters even when the excerpted scripts aren’t showing us all the groundwork. The design elements are sharp and effective throughout, particularly Nick Francone’s deceptively simple set (constructed basically of ladders, platforms, and doors, with ingenious use of a rolling warehouse ladder) and the widely divergent projections and videos created by Piama Habibullah and Jared Mezzocchi for the different pieces.
I came away excited by the possibilities for further growth and development of each of these plays, which is really the point of the whole thing. And as an experiment underpinning a manifesto for the American theatre—New Georges artistic director Susan Bernfield’s commitment to bringing back the epic even in an age of constraints—I can only applaud.