In his last production before he departs Actors Theatre, Artistic Director Les Waters has dropped a work that is certain to polarize audiences: Mark Schultz’ “Evocation to Visible Appearance.”
Like he’s done with other playwrights in the past, Waters commissioned the work from Schultz for the 42nd Humana Festival; the resulting play, directed by Waters, is fairly viewed as a collaboration between these two theater artists.
After a series of ominous, darkly humorous titles projected onto the stage with stark visual impact, we are introduced to 17-year-old Samantha (Suzy Weller) as she informs her sort-of-boyfriend and co-worker Trevor (Lincoln Clauss) that she is pregnant. Her father, Russell (Bruce McKenzie) is seen barely holding it together through a job interview, her sister Natalie (Ronete Levenson) is a depressive chain smoker in a mental facility, her boss at the Bear Burger Barn, Martin (Daniel Johnson), is hassling her. And then Samantha meets black metal musician Hudson (Luke LaMontagne) on a bus stop bench.
The setting is described in the program as “various blighted suburban locales,” but it feels much more post-apocalyptic, and Samantha’s existential crisis seems to have manifested itself in a physical reality that could be viewed as the mouth of hell. It is unremittingly bleak, and the mordant humor of the early scenes will give way to unexpected violence and an enigmatic supernatural presence. The whole thing is staged with transitions that are a disturbing visceral assault on the senses, replete with harsh strobe lighting and low, rumbling sound design that raises the hackles.
The cast does good work. Bruce McKenzie is always a welcome presence at Actors Theatre, and his aging, broken patriarch grounds the play in some recognizable reality. Suzy Weller nails the affectless attitude of the teenage girl lost to ennui, and she finds a suitably volatile and morally slippery partner in Luke LaMontagne. He and Ronete Levenson make Hudson and Natalie acerbic sociopaths who seem chillingly comfortable with whatever darkness is enfolding them. Lincoln Clauss and Daniel Johnson are adept with their characterizations, giving Trevor and Martin individual distinction in the face of the contrasting depths of darkness found in the play’s other characters.
Exactly what it all amounts to may so seem so subjective as to resist any tidy critical summary. For this reviewer, the originality of the piece and the avant-garde aesthetics made for energizing theater, but the pitch-black nihilism was also very off-putting. However much we may admire “Evocation to Visible Appearance,” and the exemplary work from the design team, we may not easily find a place for it in our hearts, even while it stubbornly refuses to comfortably depart our minds.
In any case, Les Waters directed plays at Actors Theatre before he was selected to be Artistic Director, and it seems likely he will return to direct again. But for now, he leaves Louisville with a potent and controversial statement that we will be talking about long after this year’s festival has ended.
Keith Waits is the Managing Editor of arts-louisville.com
Evocation to Visible Appearance
March 16 – April 8, 2018