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Theatre in in Review: Alma Baya (Untitled Theatre Company No. 61)

Nina Mann, JaneAnne Halter, Maggie Cino

There is this to be said for the intrepid folk at Untitled Theatre Company No. 61: You never know where they will take you next. In the case of Edward Einhorn's Alma Baya, we are on "a hostile planet" for an Arthur-C.-Clarke-meets-Harold Pinter exercise in science-fiction absurdism. If it left me feeling left on the dark side of the moon, as with all dramatic star treks your mileage may vary.

Mike Mroch's set -- all white walls and modular furniture, occasionally enlivened by bursts of colorful lighting by Federico Restrepo -- is occupied by Alma and Baya, a pair of females living in a kind of dominant -- regressive relationship; think of them as Alpha and Beta. Things aren't going too well at the present: Their oxygen suits, required for going outside, are broken, leaving them unable to harvest any crops. Indeed, watching them snack joylessly on paltry servings of some apparently synthetic substance, one senses the wolf may be at the door. Otherwise, their existence is marked by tedium. The height of excitement comes when a buzzer goes off and one of them turns a sort of steering wheel, calming things down. Getting ready for bed, they talk about -- but never get around to -- "pleasuring" themselves. In any case, their enthusiasm for such activities is muted.

Apparently, there are other Alma -- Baya pairs around somewhere, but their circumstances are left unclear. In any case, our Alma and Baya are disturbed by a stranger who appears, seemingly out of nowhere, with a working suit but no oxygen supplies. She is extremely vague about her origins -- is she an Alma or a Baya? -- and she needs a place to stay. On the bright side, if the women combined their resources, crops could be harvested. But, in Alma's view, three's a crowd, especially with rations so scarce -- and so the power struggle begins.

Einhorn's script purposely skimps on details, apparently intending to be teasingly ambiguous; in fact, his dystopia is blandly rendered. Are we on a far-off planet? Is this earth, following an ecological apocalypse? Hard to say. (These days, it's tough to come up with dire predictions about the future that outpace the daily headlines.) The mysterious interloper scenario could conceivably generate some tension; there's plenty for the cast to work with, including fear of the other, jealousy, and the fight for survival amid shrinking resources. But no such primal emotions are evoked; instead, Maggie Cino, JaneAnne Halter, and Nina Mann -- provide flat-affect line readings that suggest all three characters have been in outer space for far too long. (The play is performed by two rotating casts; I saw Cast B.)

These characters are fighting for their lives; where, one wonders, is the suspicion? The sense of nervous strain? The fury, waiting to break out at any second? Einhorn, who directed, knows what he is doing, and, as it happens, there is a solid dramaturgical reason for the characters' rather stilted presentation. I don't want to say too much, but if you've read Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, you'll know where the play is headed. But, having deprived the characters of intense emotion and complex shadings, and having dropped them into such opaque circumstances, the playwright is practically daring the audience not to get involved.

Certainly, it's novel to have a science-fiction premise onstage. But in tackling his drama's philosophical underpinnings, Einhorn is following in the footsteps of so many of the late twentieth century's most prominent playwrights. Their best works feature taut understructures that keep one engaged even when the action is purposely murky. We can tell that something important is happening, even when our full understanding of it remains out of reach. Alma Baya has the manner of absurdist drama but not the quickening sense of life underneath its surface. It feels like an exercise.

I must add that the production has earned much favorable commentary from a number of reviewers, so maybe I'm more oxygen-deprived than the characters, or perhaps, for some of our younger critics, everything old is new again. I am sure of one thing: This company has done far better work in the past and will surely do so again. --David Barbour


(19 August 2021)

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