Thursday, March 3, 2011

Grand Hotel

The talented cast of The Hotel Nepenthe in an alternative mood.
There have always been two sides to local playwright and actor John Kuntz: his apparently perky, eager-to-please pop sensibility is always dogged by a weirder, more menacing shadow. (Imagine the Brady Bunch spending an episode at the Bates Motel and you've got roughly the idea.) Indeed, this creepy/corny yin-yang pretty much is his sensibility, and he has teased it out over the past few years into a variety of queasily sweet dramatic landscapes, over which he presides like some whimsically appalled Don DeLillo.

Sometimes (as in last year's dreadful The Salt Girl) Kuntz can't keep these thematic poles in alignment; and to be honest, he's also a bit structurally challenged - this playwright is far better at spinning actory monologues (about a story he's not fully telling) than actually telling that story.  But in The Hotel Nepenthe (which which has been extended through this weekend at the Actors' Shakespeare Project Winter Festival), Kuntz manages to find a balance between his yin and his yang, and even a pretty good excuse for not really telling a full tale.  Moreover, his monologues this time have grown into tight little scenes (hooray!) which, if they don't quite fit together, still are played to perfection by a dream supporting team of Marianna Bassham, Georgia Lyman, and Daniel Berger-Jones - who all seem to be operating precisely on their co-star's gay-Twilight-Zone wavelength.

Carl Sagan (not to mention Brian Greene!) fans will be pleased to discover that the animating idea of The Hotel Nepenthe is yet another variation on the old alternative-universe canard so popular in Cambridge and other "alternative" locales (yes, Kuntz's scenes are this time strung together on string theory).   The playwright's many eerie episodes - populated by potential suicides and killers and vengeful wives, and their mysterious hatboxes and bathtubs and kidnapped babies - all meet and greet at that eponymous hotel (named, I think, for a drug of forgetfulness), which we may never actually enter, but which still stands as a kind of ontological-dimensional clearing house where celebrities of every era mix on the red carpet, and maybe that kidnapped baby turns out okay, while maybe its kidnapper is run down by (maybe) that vengeful wife.  All while (maybe) being watched by some cosmic voyeur, who (maybe) is us.

Now this may be a little silly as metaphor, but it works pretty well in practice - Carl and Brian offer John just enough connective tissue to keep you thinking you're watching something develop, while at the same time giving him enough leeway to riff as he pleases (he can always explain this or that indulgence as just another quick dash down a worm- or rabbit-hole).  True, at times the whole pop-sugar confection feels a bit too derivative - the themes of paranoid voyeurism aren't exactly new, and one device of repetitive car crashes seems to barrel in directly from Crash - but even when he's cribbing, Kuntz gives his kidnapped dramatic goods his own weirdly bemused spin.  And he may never find a better context for his deep sense that the sweet distractions of the pop world are designed to disguise some sort of terrifying conspiracy - indeed, in Hotel Nepenthe, not just the government, or society (or a malicious lake) is after us, but the whole space-time continuum. When a character muses that he loves riding the ferris wheel, because at the top you can see everything in perspective, you can almost hear the playwright muttering to himself, "Trust me - you don't want to know."

But at least we have the droll performances of these talented actors to savor as the walls close in on us.  Everyone in the cast is basically at the top of his or her game (including the playwright), and are clearly having a great time as they shed personae and roles as easily as wigs and costumes.  Which they often do, right on stage, as director David Gammons's conceit seems to be to imagine the whole morbid goof as occurring in some otherworldly changing room (populated, of course, by video cameras and screens, which didn't actually help all that much with this space's awkward sight lines).  I would have preferred a more visually coherent setting - I'd love to see the show done again (with this cast) - as it deserves a longer life than ASP has been able to give it - but in the kind of arresting set this director is usually know for; perhaps the dark corridors of the Overlook-like Hotel Nepenthe itself could serve? And honestly, some cuts to tighten up a few metaphysical string-thingy dead ends wouldn't hurt, either (a perkily desperate dance number at the finale might be the first to go). But until it's re-incarnated in some alternative playing space, you only have a few more performances to check into this grand hotel.

1 comment:

  1. ...it deserves a longer life than the two weeks that ASP has been able to give it...

    You'll be glad to know then that it was announced last night that the run has been extended another week.

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