The Tour - The Underlings Theatre Co
The Tour – Underlings’ Theatre Co.
Review by James Wilkinson
The Tour is presented by Underlings Theatre Co. Written by Alice Abracen. Directed by Lelaina Vogel. Scenic Design: Duncan Kennedy. Lighting Design: Kat Zhou. Fight Choreography: Matt Dray. Costume Design: Evelyn Quinn. Sound Design: Brittany Lawrence. Dialect Coaching: Daniel Thomas Blackwell.
The conventional wisdom that good things come in small packages was created for situations like this. The Underlings’ Theatre Co.’s production of Alice Abracen’s The Tour clocks in at a brief seventy minute run time, but it manages to pack a hell of a punch. The show closes out the young theater company’s first season and to my mind is the strongest of the three shows that they’ve offered. There’s an admirable sense of ambition to the work as it tries (and I think mostly succeeds) to speak to the present political moment in the world. That it manages to makes its points with grandstanding or lecturing the audience is nothing short of incredible (I cannot count the number of other plays that fall victim to that particular trap). Instead it presents its audience members with a beautiful little knot of problem for them to figure out for themselves after they’ve left the theater.
So what actually happens in the play? Well, it’s a little difficult for me to go into that without spoiling some of the play’s plot developments that occur about twenty minutes in. The basic premise is that a young Canadian tourist, (Sylvia Sword), is traveling through the Middle East and has reached the end of a one-person tour through a number of ancient sites which is led by a local guide, (Zaven Ovian). The site that the tour is ending on is scheduled to be attacked by ISIS in the next week or so, making it imperative that the two characters move quickly lest they be caught in a (to put it mildly) precarious position. But of course (as so often happens in plays like this) the characters have hidden motivations which soon come to light. Along the way the play manages to interrogate ideas of social and political responsibility on the world stage, cultural differences between nations, the ethics of war, relations between religious sects and the effects of terrorism. (You know…minor things…)
What first strikes you about The Tour is just how much of a well-oiled machine the production is. I think that this is partly due to a wonderfully lean quality found in Abracen’s script. It has the confidence to know exactly what points it wants to make and goes about making them in a very direct fashion. There isn’t so much as a wasted beat. Abracen is also smart enough to pick which dramatic elements need to be kept small in order to have the greatest impact. The play is a two-hander that takes place in one location in real time and the characters are provided with a fairly simple want, they each want the other to go back to the jeep just offstage. The structure choice actually reminds me (although it’s a play with VERY different goals) of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage where characters keep insisting they’re about to leave the apartment yet we know they never will. If they did, the show would be over.
Surrounding that wonderful script, though, is a creative team that really seems to have taken the baton and run with it. Director Lelaina Vogel takes full advantage of the dramatic meat of the play and gives it a very dynamic and kinetic staging that always feels purposeful. As the play begins to veer into thriller territory you can’t help but get swept up in the action. Standing tall at center stage actors Zaven Ovian and Sylvia Sword have an incredible chemistry that crackles in the room during the evening. Each on their own is giving a great performance and together it’s a treat.
That the play’s political intentions succeed as much as they do I think comes down to how Abracen allows characters and situations to be as messy and complicated as they are in the real world. The Canadian tourist may have good intentions in her mission, but the play is very much aware of and doesn’t hide the fact that she’s also a very privileged naïve western white girl who is in way over her head. Likewise with the guide, we see a tension generate between the idea of a responsibility towards a place and a culture and a need to secure personal safety. You understand why everyone is acting the way they are even if you don’t agree with it. I don’t think that the play is looking to make judgements so much as letting all of these perspectives play out against each other.
I wasn’t sure that I was totally on board with the final moments of the play, but then I realized that’s kind of the point. It’s not meant to be agreed with, it’s meant to bring light to a situation and to show a human element in what most western people experience as a news cycle soundbite. The crisis in the Middle East is not going to be directly solved with a play (one can hope, but probably not). However, as those in Alcoholics Anonymous know, the first step is always to admit that the problem exists. Once you have that, the conversations begin and the repercussions from there are limitless.
The Tour is presented by The Underlings’ Theatre Co. at Chelsea Theater Works May 4-12, 2018
For tickets and more information, visit their website at: www.underlingstheatre.com