Watch a small child get lulled to sleep by a fantastical tale that concludes in total peace and quiet. As the final moment of Undermain Theatre’s production of Port Twilight: A History of Science wound down to a silent, “zen-ergized” finale on opening night November 14, I could feel most of the audience join me in a collective gasp, breath caught in sheer delight. I felt like that small child.
The chameleon-like wonder of it, the pulsating wave after wave of lyrical language and startling sensory effect that infuses every atom of playing space, the humorous tangents commingled with ominous pauses like droplets of honey and tart lemon on the tongue, we watched, fascinated, as mere, foolish humans struggled to solve enormous universal riddles while barely managing mundane existence. Hard to call it a play, more of a mesmerizing meditation carried out by ritual celebrants commonly known as “actors.” It is, indeed, a true staged celebration of life.
Ogle the set design, enthralled, when you walk into the theatre. Over two hundred feet of muslin stretches throughout every recess and blank wall of the labyrinthine space, wraps around the support columns, disappears back stage, drifts out towards the lobby. Boldly splashed in radiant, resplendent graphic display, the panorama was meticulously hand-painted over a month’s time span by fine artists Linda Noland and Terry Hays, under the guidance of Undermain’s Tony Award-winning set designer John Arnone. A nod to Lascaux’s cave art flows into comic book characters that twist into Picasso-esque fantasy worlds and strident graffiti that would fit naturally into a New York subway tunnel. Strings of tiny, white lights dot the landscape, far and near, twinkling at appropriate moments like magical fireflies. The visual impact is as brilliantly evocative, reminiscent of special effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The expansive panorama depicts the whole universe unfolding before your eyes, draws you in deeper and deeper…and deserves mounting in a museum or gallery once the play closes.
I am no quantum physicist. No way! But the multiple threads of odyssey-like tale in Port Twilight weave together with such structured rhythm that I suspect the presence of some genius algorithm driving them along. Ten actors play a myriad of overlapping roles and stroll or scamper in and out of each other’s scenes/ realities. In one, a young girl (Danielle Pickard) wanders the landscape in search of love and acceptance, encounters an obsessed, fatalistic scientist neighbor (Josh Blann with a hair-do from Hades) and finally finds her heart’s desire (Ian Sinclair).
In another reality, a blasé middle-aged couple (slicked back Jonathan Brooks looking like a 60’s movie idol and Shannon Kearns-Simmons adorned all Neiman’s sheik in black cocktail ensemble) alternate between addressing the audience from lawn chairs in the jaded town of Port Twilight like a slightly inebriated Greek chorus, snubbing each other, and assisting a dominatrix research scientist (Stefanie Tovar) in a search for extraterrestrial contact. Along the way they re-connect with each other. Another thread lampoons the machinations of bad script writing and LA-textured B-movie filmmaking (Jessica Cavanagh, Arianna Cook, Bruce DuBose, Josh Blann, Ian Sinclair) with satisfying resolution. In yet another scenario, a crazed rabbi mumbling rote incantations (Bruce DuBose) wanders aimlessly through several layers of reality, in vain search of a new Messiah, accompanied by a bedraggled orphan servant (Ian Sinclair). What they find, (loincloth clad, feral Christian Taylor) is unanticipated. There’s more, which I won’t spoil for the reader by describing. At routine intervals, a chorus line of scientists in dark sunglasses and white lab coats dances vaudeville-style while singing the 40’s samba tune Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think). There’s an intense, apocalyptic video interlude and a wacky alien machine puppet with a huge exotic head and moving appendages with flashing red lights. A menacing organ grinder (Kent Williams) with a monkey dispensing Chinese fortunes from a tin cup strolls through many threads and directly accosts the audience, grinning like a Cheshire cat. Does he hold the key to the universe? The end arrives and steals everyone’s breath away. Enjoy yourselves, y’all.
Undermain’s versatile acting ensemble is in fine form here, drops nary a line, misses no quintessential physical moment. With the endless cacophony of non sequitur action rounding the play’s arc, the cast demonstrates admirable trust and focus. This show could not reach its kinesthetically stunning heights without the dedicated work of a superlative tech crew. The “unsung stars” are: John Arnone (scenic design), Giva Taylor and Angus Deardoff (costume design), Steve Woods (lighting design), Bruce DuBose (musical composition), Jeffrey Franks (video design), Jessica Barnett (stage management), Brooks Aubrey (prop fabrication), Ben Bryant (master electrician), Rob Menzel (audio consultant), Sean-Michael Galgano (sound board operator), Sean Springer/ Erik Cardenas (additional creative construction). Quite a team; take a much-deserved bow.
And then there is the Merlin of the piece, playwright Len Jenkin. Jenkin’s credentials and awards include three Obie Awards for directing and playwriting, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rockefeller Foundation Award, a nomination for an Emmy Award, four National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships and a PhD in literature from Columbia University. His stage plays have been produced throughout the United States, as well as in England, Germany, France, Denmark, and Japan. Dude knows his stuff.
Undermain Theatre’s production of Port Twilight: or A History of Science runs through December 12 at their Deep Ellum location in the basement of a six-story red brick building at 3200 Main Street, Dallas, TX between Hall St. and Exposition Ave.
Plenty of FREE, well lit, accessible, cordially attended parking. But…watch out for poorly marked “no parking” spaces on the street.
For tickets, call (214) 747-5515 or go to www.undermain.org
PHOTOS by Ashley Randall
Top: (l to r) Danielle Piccard, Ariana Cook, Josh Blann and Christian Taylor
BOTTOM: Josh Blann