Monday, February 27, 2017

Theatre AUM: "Coupler"

Put together a young emerging playwright's award-winning script, a design team who help bring her clever story to life, a tight seven-member acting ensemble, and a director whose vision brings inventive interpretations that engage a contemporary audience in a fast-paced intermissionless 75-minutes, and you have Theatre AUM's latest foray into exhilarating theatre. -- Meredith Dayna Levy's Coupler has ended its two-weekend run, but for those fortunate enough to have gone on her magical fantasy ride, the memory should last a while.

Mike Winkelman's forced perspective cartoon-like set is made to replicate a London Underground train carriage that confines the actors into a small area that is located close to the first row of the audience and thereby invites them into its intimate space. Familiar popular music selections regularly punctuate and comment on the action. Val Winkelman's character-specific costumes help define the actors' roles and, with a few concessions to idiosyncrasies of the script, look like they could have come from anyone's closet.

For the first few minutes of director Neil David Seibel's production, there is no dialogue...only music, announcements of the names of station stops on "the tube's" Northern Line with reminders to "Mind the Gap" or be careful of the "closing doors", and actors getting on and off the train where they take various positions sitting or standing, each one in his or her own isolated world, until...the fatal brief eye-contact followed by an amazing kiss that erupts into a fantastical saga of hyper-connected people dropping their electronic devices and trying to communicate on a personal level. -- Can't we all identify with that?

Then things get even more interesting and bizarre as the Northern Line Train [Amy May], intent on being a kind of fairy godmother, sprinkles pixie dust on several unsuspecting characters, especially two "lost boys" who have reached adulthood but have not yet grown up or found true love. The "Neverland" metaphor takes over.

Christopher [Kodi Robinson] is an aspiring writer [he calls himself a 'logophile'] in need of inspiration for his new book. After he kisses Sadie [Brittany Vallely] and she disappears as she leaves her copy of Peter Pan on the train, his obsession with finding her is sidetracked when he meets Samantha [Olivia Crutchfield]. -- And Glenn [Jay Russell] is grieving over his mother's suicide and can't sustain any lasting relationship, especially with Emily [Kelli Abernathy] who also happens to be Christopher's publisher. -- Emily's assistant Cole [Antonio George] helps navigate the worlds of business between Christopher and Emily while attempting to ease a relationship between Christopher and Samantha.

The accomplishment of mixing fantasy with reality is managed with sound effects and sudden changes of lighting, so audiences are always aware how closely the real world resembles "Neverland" and how effortlessly the script allows both to exist simultaneously. -- It is a credit to the acting ensemble that they communicate this dichotomy so well and invite us to share their experiences.

To be fair, there are times when lines are hard to hear because of overlapping dialogue with a lot of physical action going on that garners spontaneous audience reactions; and the British dialects need to be more consistent.

The text takes great care in having the Train announce the various station stops along the Northern Line in correct order so there is never a doubt that all the real world action is confined to one carriage on an Underground train; yet, the surreal coexistence of "Neverland" intrudes into their lives, giving them a childlike freedom to help realize their potentials.

The characters may not grow up entirely, but by the end they are well on their way, and audiences who have delighted in their fantasies and felt the attraction of giving in to their own imaginations for a while, leave Theatre AUM with smiles on their faces.