“Is it always so…close like that?”
Dania indicated her feet, still tucked up under her chair after the set had been constructed mere inches from her.
“Usually,” Gwen said. “I believe every show I’ve seen at The House is arranged into alley seating, or in the round. They want the audience to feel like part of the action.”
“Well, I was definitely almost kicked in the face.”
“They rehearse so that doesn’t happen,” Gwen added. “Surely.”
“I do think it’s unfortunate where we sat,” Eleanor said, as they walked away from the Chopin Theatre. “I’ll take responsibility for being all gung-ho for the front row of seats, but I didn’t know that parts of the show were going to take place literally above us, where we couldn’t see.”
“I could have told you that,” Gwen countered. “You walk in, see that big hanging platform, there’s no way an actor isn’t going to end up walking on top of that during the play.”
“Sure, but I figured it would be something like the Act II opener,” Eleanor said. “Where it’s lowered to the ground. Not someone on it while it’s still in the air.”
“Lookingglass just did that in 20,000 Leagues,” Dania pointed out.
“They’re not itinerant,” Gwen said. “They’re also absurd.”
“I’m not sure we can go around calling people ‘absurd’ after this,” Eleanor said. She flipped up a collar against the growing fall chill.
“The House does specialize in absurd journeys through wild and fantastical lands,” Gwen said. “The show’s a natural fit for them.”
“The box was built for the show, right?” Dania asked. She recalled looking up as she entered the theatre, at the angled crags and blurred halation of the crystalline walls that rose high above the stage, cutting off the rest of the room from view. “That’s not just what the theatre looks like?”
“No, no no no no,” Gwen assured. “Granted, I’ve never seen them build something like that before, and it worked wonders for this story.” Gwen reached into her bag again, pulling out the briefing folder that served as her program. “I don’t know how The House always finds the most accomplished scenic designers.”
“You both liked the ice box a lot?” Eleanor asked.
“Did you not” Dania asked. “I thought it was used fine. They could project stuff onto it and it didn’t feel super gimmicky.”
“‘Eleanor Kahn…has worked extensively with The House in the past,'” Gwen quoted, from the Scenic Designer’s bio. “All right, that makes sense. They probably have a core set of artists familiar with the aesthetic.”
“Gwen, Eleanor didn’t like the set.”
“It wasn’t that I hated it or anything,” Eleanor added, defensively. “My problem was that it was too claustrophobic.”
“Well, maybe that was the point,” Dania said.
Eleanor glanced towards Dania, quizzically. “Since when did you become Gwen? Devil’s Advocate for the ‘intention…'”
“I was about to say the same thing,” Gwen smirked. “In a play all about corporate bureaucracy and offices, perhaps it makes sense to literally trap the audience in a giant box during the show.”
“But was it about corporate culture, really?” Eleanor said. “Because by my count, there are just as many scenes that take place outside, supposedly on a giant empty ice field.”
“But it also sort of looks like it’s made of ice,” Dania added. “I mean, you literally just called it The Ice Box.”
“It wasn’t the box, it was the scale of everything,” Eleanor said. “Like, I get that it’s gonna be a tight playing space. That’s The House’s thing. But when you also fill that space with seven actors, and a rising platform, and those support beams for the platform – I mean, that guy’s butt was literally right in your face, Dania.”
Dania didn’t deny this – in fact, she cocked a knowing glance to her friends. “Not a problem for me.”
“But when it’s the climax of the show, and things are being hindered by the physical space,” Eleanor continued. She thought back towards the show. With the exception of one moment – an excellent bit of mime work from actor Tia Pinson, mimicking a trek through whipping winds – she had never been able to completely put her concerns about the space’s scale out of her mind. “I don’t know, maybe it’s just me.”
“I think they had about as much space as they did in Great And Terrible Wizard Of Oz, and they made it work then,” Gwen commented.
“Yeah, but that’s a different sort of show.”
“I did have one part where it felt sort of small,” Dania said, “but that was only because I was worried I was going to get hit in the face with a bagel.”
Gwen grinned. “I loved that scene. Really good energy through the whole thing. Those three ensemble actors are the hardest-working performers in the cast.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Gwen added: “I’m not sure why the employees were dressed like electric mayflies, though.”
“I thought it was funny,” Dania said. “Like, they’re just buzzing around, spitting that sick jargon and no one can tell what they’re actually talking about.”
“Perhaps, but why dress like that?” Gwen said. “The other designs I get. The HR manager with his six arms and that eye exam mask, since he’s supposed to be a peering creep. Or the loading dock employees with the helmets and antennae. There’s a connection to the literal being fed through a filter of surrealism here.”
“It bothered me that the HR manager’s arm puppeteers were doing things with their actual arms, too,” Eleanor commented. “I mean, they have pincer arms. You’d think they’d do everything with those.”
“Well, they were clearly having issues picking up that red file with the claw arms,” Dania mentioned. “Maybe it was an executive decision.”
“Regardless…” Gwen began again.
“And why did they remove his tentacle arms for the final part of the scene?” Eleanor asked.
“I was wondering that.”
“The point is,” Gwen continued. “I didn’t really get what about the pencil-pushers made them mayflies. Considering that Abbot was dressed like a normal person.”
“I liked Abbot a lot,” Dania said. “The actress seems nice. I wish she was in more of it.”
“I wonder if she was a larger role in an earlier draft,” Gwen said. “Since she disappears before the climax.”
“Burke, too,” Eleanor pointed out. “It’s a shame that she’s only in, like, three scenes in this show, she’s super interesting.”
“I don’t know why she’s dressed like a space witch,” Gwen wondered, “but it didn’t bother me.”
“What, do you want everything to look bland and normal, Gwen?” Dania asked.
“I’m only asking for justification in the design. Perhaps it was there and I missed it.”
“You know what I liked? Tiny, tiny detail but it was good?” Dania said. “That when she was talking with Cozbi, she took her heels off.”
“Right?” Eleanor said. “I noticed that. It’s like a tiny subtle gesture of ‘trust me.'”
“But it might be calculated, is the thing,” Dania added. “Since it turns out there’s a secret nefarious agenda to that meeting.”
“Nefarious might be too strong a word,” Eleanor said. “Honestly, I didn’t – okay, here’s the thing that surprised me about the show.”
“Go on,” Gwen said.
“It’s a play about an oil company, right?” Eleanor said. “The plot is that there’s this big oil company drilling in Alaska, and Cozbi needs to go and grab her brother from its demonic clutches. Sounds normal, right?”
“That’s basically what happens, yeah.”
“But it’s not, though,” Eleanor continued. “First off, there’s literally no discussion about the ethics of the oil company. Not about the drilling, not about the working conditions, not about the long shifts. Which is fine, if that’s not the point of the show, but it’s an oil company.”
“I mean, they do talk about how Absalom is kept away from Cozbi by the job,” Dania said. “The sibling relationship is really strong throughout.”
“You’d think the ethics would at least get some kind of mention,” Eleanor said. “But the weirdest thing is that…I think I’m on the side of the oil company in this play.”
Dania’s eyes opened wider. “That’s not where I thought you were going with this. You’re siding with the company?”
“I didn’t want to!” Eleanor said. “Like, obviously, you want to side with Cozbi and her fight to save Absalom from the evil company with her ax––”
“She didn’t use the ax as much as I wanted her to,” Dania added.
“Fair,” Eleanor agreed. “I want to be on board with her mission, but when you look at the actual actions taken by every character, I don’t think the company actually does anything evil in the show.”
“What do you mean, nothing evil?” Dania said, shocked. “They try multiple times to throw her into the deadly snow, I think that’s worth not rooting for them.”
“Well, sure, but only after Cozbi has broken in and caused damage. I mean, consider the bit with Parsons, and his phone.”
“Yes, that,” Gwen agreed, bitingly. “Let’s discuss.”
“You watch the first scene, and it’s standard ‘protagonist outwits the minion’ fare,” Eleanor said. “But then the show provides this context for it, and you see the cost, and – honestly, that was the point where I started to wonder how much the justification for Cozbi’s mission was entirely constructed in her own head.”
“That might be the intention, however,” Gwen countered. “The House mentioned in their original season announcement that Borealis was about ‘the way we fail each other by building narratives to support our own pre-existing worldviews.’ Perhaps the message is that both of the siblings, Absalom and Cozbi, both do that. The show simply begins with the audience already in league with the belief that this kind of story usually supports – the anti-establishment one.”
“Maybe,” Eleanor said. “Then again, Cozbi’s viewpoint doesn’t really change, even when presented with information to the contrary.”
“Gee, is there a sentence I’ve heard more in the last two years…” Dania mused.
“But it’s true,” Eleanor repeated. “I know people were definitely reacting to the end of the play as an uplifting, empowering moment, but honestly it’s a little weak. It implies that the characters learned very little from the journey.”
“Perhaps Cozbi wouldn’t have taken the route she does in the final scenes, were it not for her being tested on the journey,” Gwen suggested.
Eleanor rolled her eyes. “Or, consider: she tries to burn a guy alive within the first ten minutes.”
“Yeah, I sorta get what you’re saying, Eleanor,” Dania added. “The ending is sort of an anti-climax.”
“That’s likely the point, though,” Gwen defended. “This isn’t the kind of story that needs to have a big explosive conclusion. It’s contemplative.”
“It’s billed as an ‘Epic Quest,’ I’d expect something grander.”
“I mean, I liked the ending,” Dania said. “I liked it overall. It’s a little patchy, sure, but it’s still generally good.”
“If I embrace the moral grey areas in the script, it’s a deeper narrative than I gave it credit for initially,” Gwen said. “And a fine fit for The House’s aesthetic.”
“Maybe,” Eleanor said. She did not elaborate, but continued to walk through the cold September wind.
Image Credit: Michael Brosilow