Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War
Text by Marc Bovino and Joe Curnutte
Co-Conceived & Directed by Lila Neugebauer
Co-Created by the Mad Ones
Convention in drama seems more and more to embrace the unconventional. The Mad Ones' revival of their first critically acclaimed performance, Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War (at the New Ohio Theatre through January 21) has all the usual markers of a popular contemporary play. There's a small cast, a relatively spare set, a mixing of the mediums (radio performance on stage), one character is not mute but doesn't speak, parts of dialogue are unintelligible or un-translated, the lights go out for an extended period of time but there's only one act, no scene breaks, and no intermission. And yet the play turns out far from run-of-the-mill. Because of their idiosyncratic approach and the distinctively nostalgic aesthetic, The Mad Ones pull it off and set themselves ahead of the pack.
For just over an hour, the company transports us to some indefinite dystopian future from which they examine an imagined past. Pleasantly hokey Russo-American accents and a bit of semi-Soviet kitsch set us some place that, at the very least, is not in America–according to the script, that continent is long gone. Allusions are always suggestive, never overtly referential, and proper nouns fly by so quick you never know what's real or made up. This tension with reality is one of the group's main explorations. As with their celebrated play at the Brick, The Tremendous Tremendous (one of our top picks on stage last year), we have a troupe of performers not so much representing, as they are presenting performers.
Engrossed with 1950s Americana, Russian performers stage an English radio play, transmitting it to listeners who could quite possibly number none. The radio play tells the story of all-American siblings Samuel and Alasdair and the girl next door caught in between. At the close, of course, the unthinkable happens and their world comes to an end. A sense of character is fleeting and opaque. Some of the dynamics between them seem to extend beyond the radio play into the overall stage performance, maybe even beyond what's going on at the New Ohio Theatre to the company itself. Actors at times seem to fall into their usual types and familiar roles emerge.
This raises an important question: is this improv? Exiting the theater, someone turned to me and said, "that was great, but I wish the writing were a bit more sharp." I for one don't and believe the cast is conscious of this. The text is spontaneously generated and their writing is collaborative, at times "automatic" according to the playbill. Some of the lines might not be so witty or poignant, might even be poorly imitative, but if anything that says a tremendous amount about the characters speaking them, even the actors thinking them. It's a practice that does away with the notion of a divine playwright behind it all, belaboring every word and imbuing each with grandiose meaning. Far from textbook realism, the Mad Ones simply give us well-executed, spectacular reality.
(Photo: Ian Saville)