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Monday, July 24, 2017

"Alex and Aris" - More Plato than Godot

A man… a tree… a horizon. Where are we, anyway?

ACT’s world premiere of Moby Pomerance’s “Alex and Aris” opens with classic archetypal vividness: a figure emerges from behind a gnarled tree and peers into the near distance: wary, curious, observant… a young man waiting for the arrival of … something.

Chip Sherman and Darragh Kennen as student and mentor. Photo: Chris Bennion

The stark tree against an empty sky suggests Godot. But no; it is Aristotle, Athenian student of Plato, summoned by the Macedonian King Philip II to instruct his teenage son Alexander. The young man, whom Aristotle first mistakes for a commoner, is Alexander himself. The tutelage has begun before the great Aristotle even realizes it – a tutelage that works both ways.

The story highlights an intersection of philosophy and policy in an ancient world, and this elegant, fast-paced production brings out the proximity to our "modern" world of that seemingly distant confluence.

Under John Langs’ direction, the pace never slows, though at times one almost wishes it would. There is a lot to take in: sumptuous language; a complex back story; a host of off-stage characters; swift leaps through time as Alexander transforms from pliant student to increasingly defiant and purposeful master of the world. The script is an intellectual challenge, and Langs and his creative team make of it a thrilling, deeply engaging puzzle.

Darragh Kennen in mid-lesson. Photo: Chris Bennion
Darragh Kennan (a down-at-heels-looking, slightly fussy Aristotle) and Chip Sherman (with stunning command of the stage in successive embodiments of his character) find remarkable synergy. The guarded, princely young Alexander seems incapable at first of understanding the world but through the lens of power – the facts of the world before his eyes and within direct experience. As the philosopher, teacher, and visionary Aristotle awakens him to the world of imagination, he unwittingly releases a force beyond his dreams.

Kennan succeeds at a difficult acting task: making one of the great luminaries of the world appear human-scaled and contemporary while convincingly rooted in a historical figure. His relatively modern attire and manner contrast with the subdued, regal, increasingly powerful Alexander, whose idiom and carriage spring from more archaic ground. 

Julia Hayes Welch’s rich and surprisingly malleable scene design supports the vitality of this cerebral, yet very visceral theater experience. The tree-roots gripping the stage acquire dreamlike depths of meaning and association: the hidden, living force of history beneath our feet, perhaps, or the far-reaching consequences, foreseen or not, of thought and action.

Multi-level terraces highlight shifting power, perspectives, and states of being. A great wall on which a classical visage is barely discernible as though worn away or half-remembered by eons of human history, opens surprisingly to reveal a cupboard of homely instruments: scrolls, a lantern, drinking vessels. Screens expand or shrink the broad world beyond the scene of action -- the waiting empire, the very Elysian Fields.

The only jarring element is the ubiquitous stage mist, which induced a wave of coughing in the audience. Presumably meant to add a filtered or softened look, it is an unnecessary distraction.

Philosopher and King: Darragh Kennen and Chip Sherman.
Photo: Chris Bennion
One of the most effective leaps of imagination occurs in the penultimate scene, beyond time altogether. Here, Robert Aguilar’s nuanced lighting design combines with inspired costume, set, and directorial choices to create a moment of pellucid apotheosis: Aristotle, garbed in classical robes of silver and pure white (a change from his earlier shabby tweeds) orates directly to the audience, describing a dream flight above time and the world. Above and behind him, facing away on an ornate Grecian-style throne, sits the Emperor of that world, a god-like presence in a timeless state of legend and archetype.

For a few moments we see both Philosopher and King in unity and paradox -- one, yet in opposition. It’s a moment of transcendence and beauty, followed by a shattering and sudden climax.

Part of the genius of this production is the apparent ease with which the modern and the ancient are sewn together. Running through the play is a sense of the power of history to spring up underfoot, as it were, with new life; or with tragedy, as in the modern Balkans or any number of other locations, with new grounds for revenge, mayhem, and death.

Matt Starritt's sound design is rich with music from the Balkans, Caucasus, Iran, Turkey -- Alexander's empire represented in traditions that find global audiences today. The tonal illustrations add yet more sensations to the theatrical feast.

Pomerance’s script achieves an intricate and satisfying arc of time, as words and images from early in Alex’s training echo to the end: “You cannot defend a thing by refusing to say what it is…”  “They filled our broken mouths with stones…” Both master and student are slaves to destiny, as in the ancient tragedies; and to facts of history and psychology in today's terms. Is imagination the only tool man can wield to attain elusive and perhaps illusory transcendence?

The very watchable Chip Sherman. Photo: Chris Bennion

Every viewer will have a unique understanding of the challenging script, and may leave the theater puzzled, wishing perhaps that the abrupt ending did not cut one off in mid-thought, for there is much to process.

Puzzlement aside, one cannot help but be engaged and moved by this well-crafted, vivid production featuring two exceptional actors and the full resources of ACT Theatre's deep talent pool. Philosophy is less about finding answers than asking good questions; this play will leave you with many, and with a deepened sense of just where we might be in the big picture of time, history, and the human imagination.

"Alex and Aris"
by Moby Pomerance

Directed by John Langs

at ACT Theatre
July 14-August 6, 2017

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