Sunday, May 18, 2003

Play looks squarely at Big Brother

'Square One' has creepy relevance in post 9-11 world

By Joseph McDonough
Enquirer contributor

A democratic government reacts to a national emergency by "restructuring" society and exerting tight control on the freedoms of its citizens.

This Orwellian atmosphere is at the heart of Square One, the dark satire by the late Steve Tesich that was written in the early '90s but has an eerie resonance with our post 9-11 world.

Square One is a witty and heartbreaking gem of a play. Its current production by New Edgecliff Theatre is equally fine - one of the best area small theater productions of the season.

World squashes love

We start off with what seems like a funny if somewhat absurdist romance. A man (a wonderfully glib Matt Johnson) and a woman (a beautifully spacey Elizabeth A. Harris) meet in a park, quickly decide to marry, and eventually have a baby.

But all the while, despite their sincere and often funny efforts, they never seem to communicate. What passes for love seems oddly empty and they don't even learn each other's names.

Could this have something to do with the helicopters always hovering overhead, and the near total control by the Big Brothers-that-be over all issues of life, death and the pursuit of happiness?

Director Rebecca Bowman has a perfect feel for the material. She elicits bigger-than-life performances from her two actors, yet there is never a moment out of control.

Johnson has the cheesy smile and smug demeanor of a man who has accepted the emotional numbness of the new world order and is happy to be a "state-certified artist" and smarmy host of TV's Patriotic Variety Hour.

Harris, though, refuses to go numb. She rambles and she worries and she struggles to understand her life, but she will not submit. She won't give up the freedom of feeling to further the collective future.

Johnson and Harris work splendidly together and generate for us not just laughter but also the emotions their characters have lost.

Designers do good work

The design team also does smart work with New Edgecliff's shoestring budget.

Dan Dermody's many-doored set and the light design by Glen Goodwin make nice use of the Artery Theatre's tiny stage.

The sound design by Christopher Guthrie has many clever touches, from faint patriotic pre-show music to the sounds of helicopters, creaky doors, shouting children and jarring music that often permeate the action.

Costume designer Laura Hollis also adds some fitting details, particularly Johnson's bow-tied "entertainer" outfit and the frumpy dress Harris wears in the final scene.

Square One, through May 31, New Edgecliff Theatre at the Artery in Newport, (513) 763-3844.

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