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Writing for CurtainUp
A CurtainUp Review
By Kathryn Osenlund
You've become so open-minded your brain is falling out. --- Lomax
Winners so often rely on lying and cheating, they are untrustworthy as a group. ---Brecht
A view of the set of Outrage.
(Photo: Jim Roese)
The jumbled, sprawling, vertical set looks like academe in collision with history. A huge broken column, garnished with scaffolding and with an office in the top, leans on a fallen pediment. There's a door on the backside of a large Renaissance Trojan horse, which clings to one side of the column. A large wooden wheel abuts architectural fragments strewn to the edge of the stage. With this feat of scenic design, Mimi Lien provides a suitable setting for the jumbled, sprawling, idiosyncratic play, Outrage by Itamar Moses, in its East coast Premiere at the Wilma.

Jiri Zizka, who must have felt like a ringmaster, had the massive job of directing a play chock full of short scenes made up of even shorter ones-- dozens and dozens of them. More is more. The play runs over two and a half hours. But this is not one of those occasions when you wonder if it will ever end. It is entertaining, and except for a lag in the middle of Act 2 you don't know where the time went.

Outrage, a demonstration of scattershot erudition, has a disarming way of defusing its own pretensions. Its self-reflexive qualities keep pointing from the stories back to the play itself.

Quasi-narrated by Bertolt Brecht (Robert Dorfman), the story commences when a university receives a large grant that, among other things, funds computer enhancements. It's the first big coup for new Humanities Dean, Kale (Erika Rolfsrud). These are tools, she claims, when long-time professor Lomax (Joel Leffert) sees danger. He cautions that the surveillance capability inherent in key cards could be misused. He fears that a grant conceivably could even dictate curriculum. Nevertheless when pressured, Lomax agrees to deliver the vote in his committee. Enter young Professor Rivnine (Marc Wolf), whose vote is needed, and political maneuvering ensues.

A student enters the fray. Steven (Cody Nickell, who had this role in the Portland Premiere) is in search of a thesis topic. He is playing his professors with a system designed to make them come up with his topic. Placing random texts side by side so they can connect the dots for him, he'll go with what emerges. Prof. Rivnine takes an interest (and a shine to Steven) and mentors him. In spite of himself, Steven stumbles on a thesis topic through his ruse, and his thesis parallels the play. His stance in the academic tussle, however, is not completely clear.

The story twists through academic discourse on campus, and through myth and history. Professor "of pre-virtual textuality" Lomax, who is also a mentor of Steven's, will act out his own worst fears, making a weapon of the very capabilities he had professed to detest. He turns to the Dark Side, garnering a questionable new grant which is advantageous to him, and offering position, influence, and blackmail to swing committee votes. Although issues in the play's historical gleanings are not an exact fit with the contemporary situation, the academic world of hypocrisy, corruptibility and irony provides a fitting structure for the play's motif of caving to pressure.

Politics go down the line from dean to prof, and from prof to prof, and from prof to student. Meanwhile, in ancient Greece, philosophy progresses from Socrates (Gregg Almquist) to Plato to Aristotle, while on a separate plane an investigation ensues as to who has, as Socrates did, the courage of his convictions. Concurrently in another part of time, the Inquisition moves from Galileo (Dorfman) to humble Menocchio, a doubter (William Zielinski), and on to Bertolt Brecht. The Holy Inquisition in its various incarnations moves through time; however in the present, different implements of torture are employed. Brecht directs his play, Galileoin L.A. He is critical of Galileo for recanting, but when put on the spot for his own activities, he capitulates to Tailgunner Joe.

Themes of homosexual seduction in ancient Greece and on a modern campus mingle with questions about God, Milton, the aims of education, martyrdom, and master-disciple relationships. The play is full of bon mots and jokes about language, mixed with thoughts about what happens when beliefs are put on the line. An oracle declaims. A tragedy occurs --all this and a fractured chorus too in a play where now and then happen at the same time.

From time to time, Bertolt Brecht points up incongruities to the audience. He is a Brechtian (ha) narrator and participant. He criticizes the cheap effects, lies, mixing of characters, anachronisms and false stories, " What comes first, the story or the facts? This play can't seem to decide."

If this sounds outrageous, it is. The stories collide "like a bomb exploded in the center of history and we're stranded in the debris." (Rivnine). There's more than a touch of vaudeville. Caricatures and skit-level pieces are thrown into the mix with serious scenes, all punctuated by graduate students reciting the titles of their ridiculous dissertation topics.

A girl Plato (Caroline Tamas) is partly Plato and partly a girl in a Plato costume going to a party where two guests are dressed as Obi Wan and Darth Vader. Obi Wan (Steven) utters the line that undergirds the sacrifice of Socrates, "If you strike me down I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine," to which Darth Vader (Prof. Rivnine) cries, "Yes!".

The actors, in multiple roles, are wonderful as is usual in Wilma shows. Cody Nickell as Steven in the center of a maelstrom of words, still has an underwritten part, which might explain some of the play's gaps. There is an astonishing performance by Matthew Humphreys. It is almost inconceivable that the same person who plays student computer geek, Brett (double major in computer science and Norse gods) is also flamboyant Alcibiades, the Jim Morrison of ancient Greece. In another demonstration of virtuosity, Peter Pryor is flat out ridiculous as a Socrates sidekick, Polites, yet quite touching as priest, Stefano. Robert Dorfman's Bertolt Brecht is masterful. Adam Wernick's original music is at times hauntingly beautiful. I just wish he would add at least a Galileo Rag. This show could have dance numbers and, trimmed, would make a wonderful musical.

It's still rough around the edges, and it takes time for the humor to warm up. Yet at the opening performance supportive audience members laughed so inordinately before things got really funny you'd think they were shills.

Kudos to director Jiri Zizka for making the playwright's huge, chaotic, 2D canvas work as well as it does on stage, a task for a traffic cop, necromancer, and shepherd. This is a bravura attempt at a synthesis of philosophical questions and romp. Outrage is very, very clever. It is so scattered and bright that its gloss masks not only its missed connections, but to some extent its point. Itamar Moses incorporates so much into a single play, and in such a light fashion, that in the joyous amalgamation his important concerns can get submerged under the chaos.

Playwright, Itamar Moses
Directed by Jiri Zizka
Cast: Robert Dorfman, Cody Nickell, William Zielinski, Erika Rolfsrud, Joel Leffert, Caroline Tamas, Matthew Humphreys, Marc Wolf, Gregg Almquist, Pete Pryor
Set Design: Mimi Lien
Lighting Design: Jerrold R. Forsyth
Costume Design: Janus Stefanowicz
Composer: Adam Wernick
Sound Design: Bill Moriarty Running time approx 2 3/4 hours including one 15 min intermission 05/18/05- 06/19/05
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 05/25/05 performance
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