Puzzling script, Strong Production Continues UDM Season

One of the joys of being a theater critic after more than a decade is having an opportunity to walk into a theater and experience a decades-old play about which you know nothing. Such was the case with UDM Theatre Company's "The Empire Builders," which I attended on its opening night. Except for the production's pedigree – a handful of the area's top performers, an award-winning alumna who has been making a name for herself as a director in recent months, and a set and costumes by another longtime favorite – I walked in with few expectations.
Two hours later I walked out with more questions than I had at the beginning – which shouldn't be a surprise after watching a dark, absurdist comedy. In fact, I'm STILL scratching my head and trying to figure out playwright Boris Vian's ultimate message. But isn't that what good, invigorating theater is supposed to do: challenge its patrons?
And what a challenge it is!
The DuPont family – Father (John M. Manfredi), Mother (Melissa Beckwith) and daughter Zenobia (Michelle Kattula) – are on the run. From what, we're not sure. But a loud, bone-chilling noise repeatedly sends them and their maid, Mug (Johnice Littlejohn), packing – moving up one flight of stairs into another (and always smaller) apartment. There they try to live a quiet life – at least until the noise returns and drives them up the stairs yet again.
Once settled in, a few things become apparent: The parents' memories seem to disappear after every flight, and everyone except the daughter ignores the elephant in the room – the origins and purpose of the noise.
Actually there are TWO elephants in their room. The other is a character simply referred to in the program as "The Schmurz" (Chris Jakob), a mute, bloodied and heavily bandaged creature who serves primarily as the family's punching bag. Again, only Zenobia acknowledges its presence, while Mug only beats him when she's ordered to do so by her bosses.
I don't want to give too much away, but for three acts the family panics, moves, talks and pummels The Schmurz. Then, in Act Three, Father finds himself alone in the attic with The Schmurz. Here I was expecting a revelation that would tie the show together and answer the questions I knew everyone in the audience was asking.
But no; that doesn't really happen. Instead, playwright Vian has Father deliver a lengthy monologue that seemingly goes nowhere and has little relevance to the plot that just unfolded before our eyes.
At least that's what I initially thought.
After much pondering, however, I came to the conclusion that the beauty of Vian's work is how he hides the answer in plain sight. Written in the 1950s as his commentary on the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, "The Empire Builders" is at its core a story about fear and how people react to their fears – real or imagined. Some are brave, some pretend they are brave, and others succumb to their fears. And despite the period in which it was written, the play is as timely today as it was a half century ago.
How so? Just look at our recent presidential election. Did America of the 20th century pass away with the re-election of Barack Obama, as many have asked? Or have we entered a new golden age? Fear mongering was a popular tool used by both political parties, and the reactions on each side of the aisle in the days leading up to and following the election seem to confirm the validity of Vian's observations: Some were spurred to action and into the voting booth, some blissfully ignored the noise swirling around them and went on with their daily lives, while more than a handful buried their heads in the sand and withdrew from the political process altogether.
Just like the DuPont family did.
There's more to consider, of course, and I challenge you to check out the show and come up with your own conclusions. But what I do guarantee is a finely staged production with a few knockout performances.
The family's glue is Father – and Manfredi has carefully dissected each line of his dialogue to carefully shade his character's emotional foundation. Although on the surface Father appears to be a professorial blowhard enamored with himself and his many achievements, Manfredi instead creates a many-layered and deeply conflicted man who is battling his own demons while trying to put a positive face on the scary situation his family faces. In a tour-de-force third-act performance, Manfredi storms the stage riding a roller coaster of emotions, with an ending that will either shock you or make total sense – depending on how you interpret the plot. (I won't reveal my reaction to it.)
Given Manfredi's enormous stage presence, I arrived at the show wondering how Beckwith would fare. Best known for her considerable body of work at The Ringwald Theatre, I was thrilled to see her stretching her wings elsewhere – and working side by side with other formidable talent. And it took only seconds into the show to remind us of her strength and versatility as an actress. For not only does she match the powerful essence Manfredi always brings to the stage, she also creates a well-conceived counterpoint to his character. Yes, Mother is quieter and a bit haughty (as you might expect the wife of a man like Father to be), but Beckwith's depiction of a mother trying a bit too hard to keep her emotions in check for the sake of her family is spot on. (Personally, I'd love to see this duo paired again sometime in the near future.)
The show's other professional actor is UDM Theatre Company co-founder David L. Regal as the Neighbor, who makes an appearance in the first act, does his usual fine job, and exits – never to be seen again till the curtain call. What a way to collect a paycheck, eh?
So what of the student actors? The beauty of the UDM Theatre Company is its mission to toss the theater department's young students to the wolves – that is, to cast them in roles alongside many of Metro Detroit's finest working professionals. Sometimes it works better than others, but it's a great way for student thespians to learn the tricks of their trade from a practical point of view rather than an educational one. And for the most part, the youngsters in "The Empire Builders" acquit themselves fairly well.
Kattula gets the most face time – that's a pun, actually, but you'll have to see the show to appreciate it – and she's thoroughly believable as Zenobia. What will serve the character better, though, is for the dialogue in spots to become a bit more conversational; that will come with time and experience, but on opening night it occasionally sounded like – well, – chunks of dialogue from a script. (That can be a problem when mixing inexperienced newcomers with long-established pros; the differences become readily apparent.)
Littlejohn's Mug is the show's comic relief. Yes, this is a comedy, but one with mostly chuckles rather than out-and-out laughs. Despite the playwright handing her some of the most humorous lines to deliver, many are slightly underplayed. Personally, I'd like to see her have more fun with them; she has the comic timing, the attitude, and the size to deliver the cathartic release the audience needs throughout the performance.
That leaves poor Jakob. The actor never leaves the stage, delivers no dialogue, and is physically abused for three fourths of the show. But what an amazing performance he delivers, the result of very tight and controlled body language, with a stare that could melt the thickest wall of steel. (From where I was sitting, it looked as if Manfredi's foot connected with Jakob's head early in the first act, and if anyone heard a few gasps, they came from my guest and I.)
The action takes place in three different apartments. As designed by Melinda Pacha, each looks like it had seen better days – but what caused the decay can't be fathomed, which matches quite well with the author's script. And her costumes perfectly capture the personalities of their bearers.
All of this comes together quite nicely under the direction of Kate Peckham. An award-winning actress whose career I've followed since her days at UDM in the early 1990s, Peckham has branched out as a director, having staged productions at a handful of local theaters. As with her previous efforts, she's done a fine job. She's taken a script with more questions than answers and given it an intriguing interpretation – one that left me deep in thought for several hours. And which resulted in a much longer review than I anticipated.
So while I still may not totally understand what Vian's point was, the fun is in the chase. And UDM Theatre Company's production certainly gives "The Empire Builders" an adventure worth checking out!

‘The Empire Builders'
UDM Theatre Company at Marygrove Theatre, 8425 W. McNichols, Detroit. Friday-Sunday through Nov. 18. $10-20. 313-993-3270.


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