Pithy Peregrinations at the Loeb Ex

Adventurous Victorians Voyage on the Verge of Time

Last night marked the opening of Eric Overmyer's On the Verge: or the Geography Yearning, a fantastical paean to language, imagination and the spirit of the future which he terms "yearning." Director Carl Bj Fox ventures into challenging theatrical territory with a flawed text and emerges with a wordy but well-executed production.

The play begins with three "sister sojourners" who set out in 1888 to explore a land "somewhere east of Australia, and west of Peru," and wind up in 1955 at a cheesy lounge called "Nicky Peligrosa's Paradise Bar and Grill." The business of the play is getting from point A to point Z, leading the audience through a bizarre and highly cerebral trek of the imagination. Ultimately, only one of the heroines decides to press on past 1955 and into the "boundless" future (which is actually the present time inhabited by the audience), but in doing so she delivers the essentially life-affirming message of the play: that beyond the verge of the present lies a future of eternal promise.

On the Verge

Directed by Carl Bj Fox

At the Loeb Experimental

Through October 13

Throughout On the Verge these "Victorian lady travellers" engage in an endless volley of pithy, alliterative, and highly allusive language. Plagiarizing from sources as varied as Joyce, Shakespeare, and the slang of fifties Americana, they wend their way through the kaleidoscopic landscape of "Terra Incognita," a territorial hybrid of the 19th century African Congo and the Land of the Blue Meanies from the Beatles' acid-crazed 1967 animation, "Yellow Submarine." This land is to be imagined rather than perceived: at the playwright's behest the set is relatively sparse.

Over the course of their journey they encounter peculiar artifacts (egg beaters, a 1972 photo clip of Richard Nixon) and individuals (a cannibal with an Alsace-Lorrainean accent, a beatnik troll) who lead them to the realization that they are not just travelling over land, but through time and into the future.

Our heroines, Fanny, Mary and Alexandra, prove to be fearless, feminine and fearlessly feminist. In an argument over whether one should wear trousers while scaling the face of a "vertiginous" cliff, Mary remarks tersely (and comically): "Alexandra, the civilizing mission of Woman is to reduce the amount of masculinity in the world. Not add to it by wearing trousers." Their careless courage makes them endearing and often comic.

The premise of the play shows obvious promise, but there is a problem: while On the Verge makes for pleasant reading, the dialogue in the context of performance is so "pithy" and high-flown that it quite often floats over our heads. There is no question that Overmyer means to celebrate language for its own sake (he says so in the notes to the play), but this linguistic festival often comes at the expense of the audience's understanding.

This is essentially a textual flaw; Fox's rendering of the play is extremely faithful to the playwright's vision. The set is minimal but artful; all the stage directions are followed closely with one exception; the performers effectively adhere to their particular temperaments as defined by the playwright; and the speech is simple, plain and relatively unaffected.

Given the burdensome text of the play, its often trying twists and turns, and the demand for imagination rather than representation, the cast pulls it off rather well. Michelle Haner is well-cast as the youthful and somewhat spacey Alex, who flirts with the various characters encountered in "Terra Incognita" and has a deep penchant for the "slanguage" of 1955. Susan Gray maintains a prim conservatism throughout the play as Fanny, a young old-maid from the Midwest. Amanda Frye wields words well as Mary, a "passionate scientist" with a particularly obscure vocabulary and an inclination to corny eloquence.

The show-stealer, however, is T.J. Mitchell, who plays the eight peripheral characters in "Terra Incognita" and beyond. He attacks his roles with refreshingly neurotic enthusiasm and pulls the play's most deserved laughs. In all fairness it should be admitted that his characters occupy a comic role in the text, but he deserves credit and praise nonetheless.

On the Verge is definitely "experimental theatre," and theatre-goers should be warned that without a thorough love of language and pure fancy the play may not hold their undivided attention. Nevertheless it is well-executed, well-conceived and entertaining: blame for any shortcomings goes to Overmyer and not to the production at the Ex.