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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Season on the Line

Or: Loomings.

Despite what you may have heard dear reader, Moby Dick is a strong and vibrant novel. Funny, touching, reflective, and adventuresome, and centered upon that most compelling of plots, the quest for purpose which embroils Ahab and Ishmael and all their crew mates in a struggle against the world. That quest has an infectious quality which makes the reader plunge through page after page of stormy prose. Until you get to the chapter dedicated to the classification of cetaceans. That is reef upon which many a sturdy vessel of attention has foundered and sunk. (If you can thread that needle with a clean pair of heels then I salute you). Similarly, in dramas about the theatre, there is something captivating about the idea of it (at least those who are not working participants). The mysterious incubation of art of joy and yes purpose too, spawns a whole myriad of plays. But these works stay close to the safe shallows of depicting the romance of all diverse group giving over their life and happiness in the pursuit of story. If a writer ventures further out into the dangerous shoals of describing fundraising and tech and the trial and the trial and error process, then there is generally just as much danger of running aground.

This is why I worried so about such a grand undertaking as the House Theatre’s Season on the Line, Shawn Pfautsch’s blend of Moby Dick and Slings and Arrows. I feared that a the general publics inadequate understanding of both the source text and the nuts and bolts of the ghost-light world, would scuttle the ship. But Pfautsch buries remarkably clever treasures for those who understand the story and the world it has been transposed to, that there is little to prevent a deep plumbed enjoyment of a highly intelligent and heartfelt play.

Our narrator (Ty Olwin), whose name should be familiar (three guesses, first two don't count) invites us, by the cold glow of the ghost light, to revive the spirit of Bad Settlement Theater Company where some years ago, never mind how many, he singed on as an assistant stage manager. It's obsessive but compelling artistic director Ben Adonna (Thomas J. Cox) has, in the midst of failing funds and a crumbling converted motel, planned a glorious artistic season featuring The Great Gatsby, Balm of Giliad, and his own adaptation of Moby Dick. But as our hero gloms closer to his crewmates, Adonnas vision for his pet project spirals further out of control and his surging energies begin to short-circuit as he battles against his once trusted right hand company stage manager Day Starr (Maggie Kettering) and the specter of his own snow white nemesis influential critic Arthur Williamson (Sean Sinitski).

Like its literary parent, Season on the Line manages to capture many elements of a first rate work of art: mystery, humor, tragedy, shivers a plenty, and a cast full of wacky, ”Isolatos”. It also manages to conduct eloquent musings on a far flung catch of subjects, within the world of theatre and without, and never once fall into preachiness. It is also a love poem (the rare depreciating sort, on par with "my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun") to the theater and all those (the designers, technicians, office folks and most especially those ministers of fate, the Stage Management crew) who must combine vision with practicality.

How splendid it is then for the all of Pfautsch’s elements to be brought to life in such a harmonious manner. Rallied by director Jess Mcleod, the elements of set, light, sound, dress and staging create an experience, of both deep intimacy and epic scale (a trippy, and awe-inspiring double vision that I have found amongst House plays time and time again). The ensemble proves a gaggle of sugar-bloods, skylarkish in their joy and sharkish in their need. There are some high flyers like the delightful Kakuemon “Kaku” Wada (Danny Bernado), self-assured and erudite Muwangi “Micky” Ndwaddeewaibwa (Abu Ansari) and masterful sign speaking Jaoa (Christopher M. Walsh). But for all its diverse and storied cast, the play, like the novel, hinges upon four voices: The storyteller, the dutiful mate, the mad messiah,and the monster.

Olwin fits the illusive quality Adonna hunts for in his Ishmael to a tee: both greenhorn and haunted; chummy but invisible. Though perhaps too invisible as he is often upstaged by the minimal actions of the laconic but bright burning Kettering, a real firstrater. Starr (like any stage manager worth their salt) is the axis point of both the imagined company and the play, and her lightly wielded authority crackles in Kittering’s tightlipped and curt one-liners; makes a virtue of a stone face with only few flutterings, a deadening or sharpening of the eye, to show us the brilliant mind and crusader spirit behind. The most electrified scenes in the whole sizzling show take place between her ice cold control and Cox’s pulsing energy (oft channeled through a threatening Harpoon, Adonna takes discipline seriously). Dangerous as a buzz saw, Cox’s wrathful enthusiasm (his “madness maddened”) never flags but always is transforming into new and ever more inventive ways to move toward his designs, come hell or high water. Finally, balanced between these two, Sinitski, dazzling in his stark white tuxedo, and handing down pronouncements (magnanimous or midwinter sharp) luxuriates in a delicious unhurried air of someone someone arch, distant and supremely clever. For all the danger that oozes off him, he has a magnetic quality, drawing us like moths to flame.

The play, perhaps unique in the classification of its kind, is also a remarkably savvy look at the power and influence of critics (whales of the Theater world, who either stove a show or, once captured, open the way to sizable profit), which puts me in a real humdinger.

Our narrator proposes that critics are supposed to offer correction, hold the mirror up to the mirror holders, and Pfautsch and his company (unlike Adonna and his) need little of my or any critics help in this. Everything fits so tightly, cast, crew, action, tech and most especially the writing (Season on the Line is so well tided and infatuated with its source text that it make you want to dash home, refit the ship of your interest and brave the dreaded Cetacean Chapter again). The only area that Pfautsch himself needs work in is adding more reverie, a strange enough request for show already three hour and thirty minutes.

Our guide begins our journey by confiding that he loves the plays that raise questions, “not about whether the play was good, but whether we are good.” The House theater’s other recent original productions, sublime creations like Rose and the Rime or The Crownless King, harvest these questions by the baleful. Yet for all its eloquence and spot on observations, Season on the Line falls short of a truly metaphysical experience, touching the necessity of art or duty, the chance for redemption, and the state of all humankind.

Even before we meet them, by very virtue of even a scant knowledge of the source text, we know that Adonna and his crew are bound for death (now, what sort of death, that makes an interesting question.) The play, to snatch a phrase from Williamson’s book (unless I’m grossly misquoting, always possible), “makes the personal universal”, but has not quite yet found a way to make the universal personal.

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