As the fall semester comes to a close, the theater department at CCBC Essex has taken a turn for the absurd. Julie Lewis directs the double feature of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story and Young Jean Lee’s Pullman, WA, both of which highlight Theatre of the Absurd, a style which, in their own words “breaks down typical theatrical structure and forces the audience to become introspective and find what the production means to them.”
In The Zoo Story, strangers Peter and Jerry spend nearly an hour talking on a park bench across from the zoo. Well, talking is a generous way of putting it; The Zoo Story is a verbal hostage situation. Tim Neil plays put-together Peter, a man who’s got his life together. He has a job, a wife, kids, and a small menagerie of pets. On this particular afternoon, Peter just wants to read his book on his favorite bench in peace and quiet.
Charles Gearhart plays Jerry, Peter’s seeming opposite and a man who really, really wants to talk to him. Gearhart’s Jerry keeps Peter on the bench, a prisoner of his meandering, often inappropriate, and definitely absurd conversation, giving Peter and the audience a close, personal look at his life, thoughts, and emotions. Gearhart gives a strong performance, practically doing a one-man show in places.
But Jerry needs Peter, both as his catalyst and conversation partner. Tim Neil has the unenviable job of keeping a straight face during some of Jerry’s more outlandish stories, and he perseveres. More importantly, he doesn’t let his character become overshadowed by Jerry’s more dominant and active role in the play.
Pullman, WA takes absurdism to the nth degree, landing just a few steps short of Dadaism, as three students discuss and fight over what it means to “live a good life.” Of the two plays, this one feels much more natural for student actors to perform, perhaps because the play itself feels like a college seminar taught by students who’ve gone mad from finals fatigue.
Jimmy Yarsay is a bit like a heavily caffeinated philosophy/psychology major. Anna Steuerman is gleefully manic, like a Lisa Frank fan with a few thousand volts of electricity running through her. And Alonzo Perez is the evangelical raconteur, always with a parable on hand. All of them have had epiphanies on how to live well, but it’s just beyond their grasp to remember and articulate; with the help of one another they might be able to put it together, though. While in The Zoo Story, the conflict is between two characters who embody chaos and order respectively, in Pullman, WA, that conflict is as much within the individuals as it is between one another. It’s a dichotomy which has the entertaining result of forcing the performers to go to physical and emotional extremes and then rein themselves in on a dime.
Terri Raulie is the scenic and lighting designer for both plays. The set for The Zoo Story is simple. A platform holding up a park bench on astro-turf, with plastic fall leaves scattered about. A wall of autumn colored ivy hangs in the background. The lighting is similarly keyed down, right until the end, when some dramatic color changes try to infuse tension in a finale you can kind of see coming. For Pullman, WA, the set is the entire room. The seating is moved around and the actors move freely through the audience. The overhead lights are on the whole time, allowing the audience to see each other and, in a quiet, subtle way, become part of the discussion.
James J. Fasching designed the costumes for The Zoo Story, were suits, the cut and style of which are great indicators for the state of mind of each man. Jason Randolph is responsible for the sound designer, and Anjali Cornish and Giustino Puliti are crew and light board and sound operators respectively. The students of stagecraft, THTR 131, built the set. Zach Hartley choreographed the stage combat, which is very good but slightly undermined by how close the audience is near the action.
The staff and students of CCBC Essex have put on not one, but two well-performed shows. These student actors are cutting their teeth on some challenging material and doing great with it. I look forward to seeing them in more productions. If you need a little more of the absurd in your life, be sure to visit CCBC Essex soon and get your fill.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with one intermission.
The Zoo Story and Pullman, WA plays through Tuesday December 8, 2015 at CCBC Academic Theatres Essex in the Studio Theatre of the Arts and Humanities (AHUM) Hall at CCBC Essex – 7201 Rossville Boulevard, in Rosedale, MD. For tickets please call the box office at (443) 840-2787, or purchase them online.