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Review: ‘Ideation’ at Theatre Exile

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Ethics, morality, self-interest, and accountability are the big issues addressed in Theatre Exile’s smashing production of Aaron Loeb’s Ideation, in a sardonic send-up of over-the-top ambition, greed, expectations, and machinations in corporate America. Directed with no-holds-barred humor and razor-sharp insight by company Founder Joe Canuso, the provocative show uses shock value to examine our core values, with a mordant plot that conjures “Jeffrey Dahmer on a national scale.”

Allen Radway, Harry Watermeier, Alex Hughes, D'Arcy Dersham, and William Zielinski. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Allen Radway, Harry Watermeier, Alex Hughes, D’Arcy Dersham, and William Zielinski. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Set in an upscale post-modern conference room and presented in real time, a group of four zealous consultants has been called together with a rookie intern and given 90 minutes to brainstorm their implementation plan for a horrific top-secret project that will have far-reaching effects on the world’s population. As the contents of their disquieting assignment are revealed, their cavalier joking and competitive one-upmanship give way to suspicion, in-fighting, paranoia, and hysteria, and they start questioning, hypothesizing, calculating, and ideating on their own positions in the larger think tank’s unknown scheme of things, while astutely referencing the Milgram experiment (a series of psychological studies in which obedience to authority took priority over personal conscience and empathy) and banning the use of the “n-word” (not the one you think).

A stellar cast of five (costumed by Katherine Fritz in big-ticket business attire) delivers hilarious tour-de-force portrayals of the ethically-challenged personalities, highlighting their intellectual excitement for professional problem-solving, evasive corporate-speak, and binding agreements of non-disclosure, and their disturbingly dispassionate attitude towards the “liquidation” and “disposal” of the projected targets of their preliminary systems design. Allen Radway is riotously condescending, critical, and combative as Brock, a self-professed “asshole” and egomaniac with a compulsion to win at all cost. William Zielinski’s Ted is focused, goal-oriented, and evaluative, a Southern “Papa Bear” (dialect coaching by Melanie Julian) determined to get the job done at all cost, so that he can make it home in time for his kid’s soccer game. As the Indian-born and Harvard-educated Sandeep, Alex Hughes is the first of the team to consider the possibility that their project might not be what it seems and their own safety might be in danger, commenting with disparagement that Americans are “so entirely trusting” when they shouldn’t be. D’Arcy Dersham is a revelation as Hannah, capturing the circumspection, ambivalence, and acquiescence of a woman supposedly in charge, but ever-cautious in the company of the more aggressive and powerful men with whom, and for whom, she works. Harry Watermeier is laughably inept and clueless as Scooter, the young apprentice and son of a Board member who is there to get coffee for the consultants and to take notes on their meeting – or is he? And Steve Wolfson provides the voice of JD, the corporate kingpin who communicates with them by a conference phone (sound design by Liz Atkinson) that causes the lights to flicker (lighting design by Robin Stamey), and whose motives the increasingly agitated team can’t quite discern.

Allen Radway, William Zielinski, and Alex Hughes. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Allen Radway, William Zielinski, and Alex Hughes. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Canuso keeps the actors actively moving around the stage, furiously writing on and erasing the room’s whiteboard wall panels (smart and sleek set design by Colin McIlvain), frantically searching the site for hidden surveillance cameras, and eventually coming to blows (fight direction by Jacqueline Holloway). The top-notch performances – each and every one is uproarious – build to a frenzy, as the characters wonder who they can trust, imagine what they don’t know, and apply statistics, probability, and logic to diagram absurd scenarios that could (and historically did) happen (invoking that forbidden “n-word”).

Ideation showcases Theatre Exile at its finest, funniest, and most ferocious. The biting production makes us examine the basic principles of the greater moral good versus voracious self-interest, leaving its unsettled characters to decide if they should “go with the program” or “question authority” – and in so doing, “throw away everything” they’ve worked for and achieved. What would you do?

Running time: Approximately one hour and 35 minutes, without intermission.

Ideation plays through Sunday, November 5, 2017, performing at The Latvian Society – 531 N. 7th St, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the company at (215) 218-4022, or purchase online.

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