On the Verge
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 29, 2007
Theatergoers are in for a real treat if they go see Phoenix Theatre Ensemble's new revival of Eric Overmyer's whimsical absurdist comedy, On the Verge (and I recommend that they do). Not only will they get another splendid production from this consistently excellent company, but they will also get an all-too-rare taste of one of America's best and least recognized playwrights. Audiences with a penchant for witty puns, pop culture wordplay, and cosmic insight into the human condition—as well as a healthy sense of adventure—will find much to enjoy here.
The protagonists of On the Verge are three Victorian female adventurers, Mary, Fanny, and Alexandra, with a hankering for knowledge, experience, and travel to faraway lands. Decked out in safari gear, they pack their bags and set out for their latest exotic locale, Terra Incognita. None of them knows what this intentionally vague sounding destination holds in store, but it turns out to be much more than they bargained for. The play is evocatively subtitled "The Geography of Yearning" with good reason. This trio of lady travelers hungers for so much outside of themselves that their yearning takes them not only across the globe, but through time, as well.
Overmyer establishes each character firmly early on. Alexandra is the most traditional of the bunch, resisting the "modern" urge to wear trousers as un-ladylike. She also mixes up her words regularly: "I'm delicious—I mean, delirious," is a typical example. Fanny is more unflappable, easily powdering her nose moments after thwacking a crocodile with her umbrella. Mary, perhaps the biggest dreamer of the bunch, has a particular fondness for whipping out her machete and whacking the bush.
On the Verge's three sojourners encounter a number of unique individuals along the way: Alfonse, a friendly cannibal; a Beat-poetry spouting greaser who studies at the Actors Studio; a lounge-singing casino owner; a mysterious white-suited stranger known only as Mr. Coffee; even a baby Yeti. All the while, the women remain unswayed from getting to where they're going—wherever that is.
On the Verge explores the idea of progress, in every sense of the word. Mary, Fanny, and Alexandra all recognize and embrace what the future holds. They marvel at the invention of radio as "voices on the air, sans voodoo," and relish the onset of "cyclones, pit vipers, bad grammar" as they look at what lies ahead. Mary, in particular, is eager to learn not only who "Ike" is, but to find out more about the namesakes that enter her consciousness right after: "Iko Iko...Willie and the hand jive..."
But, progress comes at a price, as Overmyer so eloquently states in On the Verge's most touching and powerful scene, a revealing heart-to-heart between Fanny and Mr. Coffee. I won't spoil what happens, but the message is clear: the things one leaves behind on the road to advancement are things one may not be able to return to later. For better or worse, the changes these women go through on their journey are permanent.
Director Karen Case Cook creates a fantastical world where anything can and does happen. Actors scale a rocky promontory or follow a winding trail through the audience. Projections announce scene headings both whimsical ("Not Quite Robert Lowell") and practical ("Plot Thickener"). Set designer Robert Joel Schwartz, lighting designer, Tony Mulanix, costume designer Lillian Rhiger, and projections designer Heidi Hoeft-Wolff collectively create a lavish physical production that instantly transports the viewer into Overmyer's time-bending universe.
As usual with Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, there is strong acting throughout On the Verge. Angela Madden, Elise Stone, and Angela Vitale all give delightful and lively performances. It's clear to see that these actresses have a strong rapport with each other, and are having a really good time together. Michael Surabian gets in on the fun, too, portraying the play's numerous male characters. He parlays On the Verge into a showcase for his considerable and wide-ranging talents.
"English is the vehicle, and its engine is empire," says one of the women in On the Verge's opening moments. It's a prescient statement that kicks off a kaleidoscopically challenging work that's full of such pronouncements. Phoenix Theatre Ensemble puts another feather in their cap with this enchanting and lovely production. Head downtown and whack some bush with them.