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By Robert W. Bethune, guest critic
There were some truly extraordinary women in the Victorian age. Three of them were extraordinary explorers. Eric Overmeyer’s play is ostensibly about them; he imagines them traveling together to a mysterious place somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. He calls it only Terra Incognita, and having launched his characters and his play to that distant land, proceeds to invoke “chronokinesis” to move them not only in space, but in time up to the 1950s. Two of the ladies stay there, but one moves on, and for all we know, she is moving still, “osmosizing” what she needs to know about the times and places where she finds herself.
The play is not about the women at all. The three characters are basically identical until the play is almost over, at which point they part company in complete amiability, having at last come to differing conclusions about where they want their journeys to end. We do not get to know them to any real extent, nor do they even really interact with each other except in very superficial ways. The writer’s interest plainly does not lie in story or character; it lies in wordplay and mind play, speculations on what sort of conclusions a true innocent arriving in our culture might draw.
One cannot really call this a play at all; it is a theater piece about some intriguing abstractions having to do with time, perception and culture, rendered in a comedic tone. To really place it, one must reach back to the 18th century, to Voltaire’s “Candide,” which is surely the cultural father of this piece, if not an actual inspiration. Overmeyer, like Voltaire, asks us to put on distorting spectacles so as to take a fresh look at many things we already know, and thereby see the absurdity of them. The piece is light, witty and clever, and imaginative enough to hold our interest, though not enough to amaze us.
To their credit, everyone involved take what Overmeyer gives them and returns it to us without forcing it to deliver anything it does not have. Morgan Chard, Megan Callahan and Tiffanie Kilgast are eminently watchable and quite funny as Mary, Fanny and Alexandra, our perpetually intrepid, perpetually cheerful, though occasionally exasperated explorers.
James Kuhl has far and away the most fun, and pretty much steals the show. How could he avoid it when asked to be everything from a snow-ball throwing Abominable Snowman to a Chinese fortune-cookie oracle with four-inch nails, not to mention a delightful lounge-lizard? Acting students will love his quick riff on The Method.
James Thomas, the director, keeps it all moving around, not only taking full advantage of the set but also sending the cast on journeys around the platforms that line the theater walls. The set itself is very bibliophilic, including three volumes on the stage floor that are about three times bigger than the people and provide most of the physical foundation for the performance.
‘On the Verge’
Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. Plays in repertory through April 7. Tickets: $15-$28. For information: 313-577-2972 or http://www.hilberry.com