The World's a Prison in The Unseen
Craig Wright has been super-busy. In addition to all the plays he's written, the man has penned scripts for some of TV's hottest shows, including Lost, Six Feet Under and Brothers and Sisters. Not bad for a guy who earned a Masters in Divinity and worked as a fishmonger along the way to artistic success. Stages Repertory Theatre first produced Wright's work several seasons ago, and his The Pavilion, Orange Flower Water and Recent Tragic Events are some of the most thoughtful productions the company has mounted in the past decade. Stages can now add The Unseen to their list of Wright successes.
The allegorical one-act is set in an imaginary prison run by some hellish, futuristic regime that's been in power for a hundred years. When we meet Wallace (John Arp) and Valdez (Dwight Clark), it's clear they've been locked up for a very long time. They've also suffered through hideous torture at the hands of Smash (Rutherford Cravens), a cruel beast of a man who comes around every so often to slide a metal plate of food across the floor at them, or to haul them off for a bit of terrorizing. Wallace and Valdez have never seen each other, but over the years, the two men have developed a close relationship through long talks and verbal games they hold across the shadowy space between their cells.
This simple story is remarkable in part because it manages to be so engrossing despite the fact that nothing much happens. The two men are stuck in their cells with little more than the clothes on their backs and a hard bed to sit on. They can't see or touch one another, but their deeply philosophical conversations are woven from the gold of Wright's glorious language. Wallace, who loves words, talks about "the tragic land of observable reality," while Valdez is busy believing there's a woman prisoner living below them. When Wallace points out that they're in a prison for men, Valdez argues, "We don't have a sense of the grand design."
Wallace is only interested in reason and reality, while Valdez wants to believe in the "infinite resources" of the universe. The prison is obviously a metaphor for the observable world in which we are trapped. Wallace and Valdez represent reason and faith — both of which turn out to be woefully inadequate means of survival — and Smash is the personification of all those horribly unjust, tragic events that come smashing down on our heads.
Despite the almost childlike set-up of Wright's script, the story is surprisingly effective. It's filled with odd surprises: This is a world where hot air balloons and colored lights exist beside torture involving crushed eyeballs. It's the world of our own experience, but it's shocking to see it laid out so plainly.
And then there's the strength of the production at Stages. Both Arp and Clark are mesmerizing, fully embodying their characters. Wallace's language flows from Arp with a divine grace; he uses words like "paradoxical" and "algorithm" as easily as phrases like "I have no truck with the unseen." And his beautiful speaking voice resonates with the wise timbre of irony. Clark's Valdez is the voice of both innocence and hope. His desire to have faith isn't foolish — it's a valid answer to a horrible life. And Cravens's Smash is shocking, even funny, in all his narcissistic cruelty.
Smash's actions don't come from hatred; in fact, there's no reason for them at all. He tortures prisoners just because it's his job, and he even says it hurts him to hurt others — which speaks to the millions of tiny cruelties we all inflict on each other as we go about our own lives. It bothers us to make someone else suffer, but still we do it.
These three characters move over Wright's landscape with speed and clarity under Brad Dalton's dead-on direction. The energy here is electrified by a strange urgency and a deep understanding of the subject matter. Add in Kirk Markley's gorgeous set, which is full of stark grays and odd angles, and John Smetak's lighting, which spreads disturbing shadows over the cells these men inhabit, and you've got a production that's truly haunting.
Though The Unseen wrapped up last weekend, Stages continues its Craig Wright love fest with a production of Lady, opening February 29. The story focuses on three men on a friendly hunting trip who discover they don't know each other as well as they thought. The tale stitches politics into the personal issues that come along in your forties. The men must face what they've become in their adulthood as they discuss what we've become as a nation. Wright's lovely writing, along with the Stages cast — which includes Philip Lehl, one of Houston's most interesting actors — should make for a wonderful evening of theater.
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