Sunday, April 19, 2009

Heddatron, Theater Ninjas

(From left, Allen Branstein, Scott Skiba and Faye Hargate)

There are some people who like to run their brains through a car wash now and then, to blow off the accumulating grime of the expected and the oh, so predictable. For those folks, and you know who you are, you should beat an immediate path to the Pilgrim Church in Tremont, where your cerebellum will receive a brisk, 70-minute scrub and fluff-dry.

There is more wonderful theatrical invention going on in Heddatron, now being produced by the Theater Ninjas, than you may find in five or six more conventional shows. Written by Elizabeth Meriwether, this amazingly fresh take on Hedda Gabler involves robots, the personages of Ibsen and Strindberg, and a monkey. And even while all the elements don’t function flawlessly, the overall effect is funny, weird and irresistibly delightful.

It takes place simultaneously in two time periods. In a sort of super-advanced present (complete with robots that can improve their intelligence exponentially, by themselves), we have Jane Gordon, a suicidal wife and mother. And in 1890 we observe Henrik Ibsen who is mired in a ghastly marriage to shrewish wife Suzannah as he writes Hedda Gabler, the story of a woman who commits suicide.

With parallels neatly established, the robots find their way to Jane’s house, where she lives with her precocious sixth-grade daughter Nugget, husband Rick and Rick’s volatile brother Cubby. The robots see Jane reading Hedda Gabler, and decide to abduct her to an Ecuadoran rainforest (!) where she will be forced to perform the play with an all-robot cast. Sure, this all sounds like a young playwright trying too hard to be outrageous, but don’t jump to that conclusion.

Plus, you would think that any play that attempts to take on multiple and not particularly complementary themes would implode. But somehow, Heddatron’s subject matter involving spontaneous technological progress, Freudian neurosis and the optimum characteristics of a well-made play all fold together in a bizarrely amusing way.

Along with the playwright, much of the credit for this goes to director Jeremy Paul, who is fast becoming one of the more intriguing theatrical talents in the area. In this show, he brings out a range of talented performances while paying close attention to myriad production details that almost boggle the mind.

Helpfully, the performances range from good to superb. As the quasi-narrator, Una Hanley is perfectly deadpan as Nugget, reading from her index cards as she presents a school paper on Hedda Gabler. And her presentations are often the cue to cut to Ibsen at home, where Suzannah (played with ear-piercing brio by Kelly Elliott) calls him a freak and mocks his writing process. As Ibsen, Allen Branstein is a rather lovable but tightly regimented schlub.

Ibsen’s life is further complicated when his wife hires a French maid (a lusty if sometimes hard-to-understand Faye Hargate) and a visit from the hated August Strindberg. Scott Skiba makes the most of this small part. Looking like a distant and less violent cousin of Leonard Smalls from Raising Arizona, Skiba plays Strindberg as a sex-driven maniac who chews on panties and the scenery with equal relish. He also has a monkey, played with simian exactitude by Emily Pucell.

Back in the present, Peter Nalepa and a somewhat over-torqued Doug Kusak portray Rick and Cubby, who are trying to track down the abducted Jane while being videotaped by a film student for some ill-defined project.

When the play flips into total Hedda Gabler mode, with Jane and the robots playing their parts, things go marvelously well and somewhat off the rails, all at the same time. On the positive side, the robots, played by Michael Andrews-Hinders and Sarah Kunchik, are as cute and well-teamed as R2D2 and C3PO. And they are supported by two remote-controlled, four-wheeled “characters” who play Judge Brack and Berte, along with a giant bouncing hassock as Aunt Rina.

But this penultimate scene loses some juice since the actors have to shout over sound effects and robotic slapstick. As a result, Amy Bistok Bunce’s Jane never has the chance to register fully in the scene that should tie all the other craziness together.

But that should not stop anyone who wants a dazzlingly fresh theater experience to shy away. This Heddatron is quite a lark from start to finish.

Through May 3, produced by the Theater Ninjas,
at the Pilgrim Church,
2592 W. 14th Street,

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