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Theatre in Review: The Awake (kef theatrical productions/59E59)

Maulik Pancholy. Photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia

The lead characters of The Awake have two things in common. One is obvious; the other isn't. The obvious thing: Each of them is living a nightmare in which the line between reality and fantasy has collapsed. Nate, a young Canadian man of Indian ancestry, works as an office temp; he insists he is really a schoolteacher named Buddy, but scenes of him in the classroom quickly devolve into nightmares, segueing into scenarios of imprisonment and torture presided over by a mysterious man in a hood. Malcolm, a young bookstore clerk, sits in the hospital room where his mother is in a coma; he tries to bring her back by recounting the details of a dream in which the world is flooded, with the two of them stranded on a floating bed. He frequently becomes so lost in this narrative that a good shake is needed to bring him out of it. Gabrielle, a housewife and mother, suffering a near-total break, claims to be an Eastern European film actress named Tanya. Tanya finds herself inexplicably trapped in Gabrielle's existence, forced to serve a husband and daughter team she claims not to know, arguably for good reason: Discussion of the husband's work is forbidden at the dinner table, but, later, when he is alone with Gabrielle, he proudly shows off a trophy from the office: a human finger.

Gradually, another link appears: Nate/Buddy works in a call center for Agysill Corporation, which offers "global solutions for global investors." As a matter of fact, he is filling in for Malcolm's mother, a long-term employee at Agysill before her illness. And Gabrielle was sent into her tailspin by the discovery of exactly what her husband does all day -- in his job at Agysill. Before long, it becomes clear that the corporation has nothing to do with investments and everything to do with activities of a most sinister nature. Without giving the whole thing away, let's just say The Awake raises provocative and timely questions about how far nations will go to protect the security of their citizens.

Politics and psychology intertwine in The Awake, making for a most intriguing puzzle. Long sections of Ken Urban's play are narrated by Nate, Gabrielle, and Malcolm in lovely, precise language spiked with welcome touches of wit. (Recounting one of his school dreams, Nate says, "I'm dressed, at least. It's not one of those dreams.") These take us inside the characters, lending a palpable reality to their jagged, treacherously uncertain experiences. At the same time, Urban deepens their dilemmas in a number of well-wrought vignettes. For example, Nate's night out with his coworkers bristles with menace in a way that Harold Pinter would appreciate. A scene depicting Malcolm and his mother having breakfast lays bare their mutual disappointments. And the playwright artfully arranges for his characters to collide, when Malcolm reports his mother's death to Agysill and gets Nate on the phone, leading to a poignant meeting, or when Gabrielle, taking on the role of hospital volunteer, intersects with both men.

The Awake is a tricky piece of business, switching points of view and slipping in and out of dream states, yet, thanks to Adam Fitzgerald's sure-handed direction, we always feel we're on solid ground as each character fumbles his or her way toward the painful truth. Fitzgerald has assembled an excellent company, led by three stellar performances. As Nate, Maulik Pancholy makes us understand the terrible strain of carrying an enormous secret; his characterization is marked by powerfully understated emotion and a sneaky sense of humor. Lori Prince's Gabrielle is an extravagantly artificial creation, but she makes sure that we are always aware of the trouble brewing underneath her breezily charming exterior. Andy Phelan's Malcolm is one of the most striking performances I've seen this year; the tiniest shift in emotion registers on his face in seismic fashion, revealing sorrows that he can barely name.

Urban calls The Awake "a radio play for the stage," and Fitzgerald honors that definition while providing a stylish and highly effective production. The audience sits on two sides of David L. Arsenault's set, which is defined by a low-hanging ceiling and a mirrored floor. Inside this narrow space, Travis McHale, the lighting designer, creates an abundance of looks, making striking use of color as well as a pair of fluorescent units, all of which signal changes in the characters' psychological states. Brad Peterson's subtly wrought projections -- especially his images of water -- add another level of complexity to the overall stage pictures. Christian Frederickson's sound design blends all sorts of effects -- whistling tea kettles, ringing phones, ambient voices -- with appropriately unsettling incidental music. Lisa Zinni's costumes are nicely detailed examples of casual wear that fits each character.

So much of The Awake works so well that I am sorry to report that, when the mystery of the narrative is finally unraveled, it is a bit of a disappointment. What appears to be a drama willing to take on the ugly realities of rendition and torture as tools of modern statecraft is revealed to be a rather more sentimental tale about learning to let go of the pain of one's past. This shift in focus diminishes the material, turning it into something like a tony episode of The Twilight Zone. Still, Urban is a writer with a powerfully theatrical imagination, and here he gets a first-class showcase. At the very least, The Awake provides a fine introduction to a writer, and a company, that you will want to meet again.--David Barbour

(28 August 2013)

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