Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Powerful Summerland Project asks tough questions

by Matthew Falduto
TCR - Can love survive death? That’s one of many thought provoking questions asked in TCR’s latest production, The Summerland Project by local playwright Rob Merritt. There are many stories in literature and pop culture of a grief stricken person using magic to bring back a deceased loved one. The famous short story The Monkey's Paw tells the tale of devastated parents attempting to wish their son back to life. More recently, in the Game of Thrones books and TV show, a sad princess attempts to bring her dead husband back using magic arts. In both of these stories, the lesson is do not mess with the forces of nature. The Summerland Project tells a similar story but with a modern twist. Carter Summerland (Christopher Cole) agrees to allow Dr. Beckett (Marty Norton) to copy his wife’s brain and put it in an android body that is extremely lifelike. The result is a new Amelia (Angela Billman) who has all the memories of Carter’s wife. Is she Carter’s wife reborn? Or is she a completely different person? What makes us who we are? Our memories, our bodies, our feelings? All of the above?

Such wonderful thought provoking questions. And the beauty of The Summerland Project is that so many points of view are presented in an even handed manner. When I first saw the show as part of the Underground Festival in 2011, I came away sure that Amelia was Carter’s wife reborn and a real person. After this production, I am much less certain, which speaks to the power of the show. Days later, I am still struggling to come up with the answers to the questions this show asks.

Leslie Charipar’s crisp direction served the play well. Every action was carefully considered and purposeful with no extraneous movement. The actors in this production are top notch, particularly Billman as Amelia. Her physicality in the early scenes is wonderful and the journey to become comfortable with her body is simply perfect. Her impressive emotional range as an actress is on full display in this show. Providing a great contrast in a somewhat more subdued performance is Cole. When he does finally unleash all of the emotion that has been roiling beneath the surface, he takes your breath away.

The supporting actors were excellent as well. Special kudos to Matthew James as Max, the robotics specialist who creates Amelia’s body. The character has a number of comic lines, but James does a great job of making the character so much more. While Max’s journey is secondary to Amelia and Carter, James’ subtle and often silent work tells us everything we need to know about how Max is feeling throughout the show. In the last production, Max’s final actions seemed to come out of nowhere, but this time James’ careful work makes it all clear. (I apologize for being somewhat vague – I just don’t want to spoil the end.) Also exceptional in smaller roles were Tierra Plowden as a reporter Adah Allen and John Day as a Senator desperate to stop the project from moving forward.

When this show was done originally in the Grandon Studio, it was by necessity a sparse production. Producing the show on the mainstage allowed for an impressive scenic design by Derek Easton. The set itself remains simple with a raised platform centerstage and two ramps, positioned stage left and right. It’s painted black and white for an elegant, slightly futuristic feel. The costumes were also often black and white, providing a nice design continuity. The main feature of the design, however, was the decision to place two walls of video monitors on either side of the stage. These are used in many creative ways. The news reports and interviews are often projected on the screens. We see the Senator proclaiming loudly from the Senate floor on CSPAN. And best of all, we get a glimpse inside of Amelia’s mind as she performs Google searches or trips through the memories of her past life with Carter. It’s these moments that take this show to another level stylistically. My companion mentioned that this was a show he could see being made into a movie, and I agree, it could. But what is wonderful about this production is that is inherently theatrical. The use of the screens and audio visual moments are done in such a way that can only be done on stage. There is one moment in particular when Amelia is being interviewed by Adah Allen, the reporter. She plays a song on the piano for Carter, who she knows is watching at home. At the end of the song, the image of Amelia’s face on the screen freezes. The artistic decision to linger on the love radiating from her eyes challenges us to believe she is anything but real.

As I’ve been talking about this show to friends, I’ve been asked many times, “What’s it about?” It’s tough to articulate an answer… how does one describe this play?

A futuristic tale of science gone awry?

A story that asks us to consider whether we would want to live forever?

A morality play that forces us to confront the question of what makes us who we are?

Or perhaps, in the end, it is simply a love story.

The truth is, it’s all of the above. And that’s what makes this play such an impressive work. Do not miss The Summerland Project. It’s a powerful show with talented actors tackling an original and thought provoking script.

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