Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Position, produced by PianoFight at Asylum Lab
review by Andrew Moore

I went into PianoFight LA's production of The Position with the highest hopes.  Those hopes were deflated, but what went wrong may be fixed.

Six candidates vie for a job in a dystopian, jobless future.  With equal parts Big Brother and The Prisoner, Playwright William Blivins has composed an intriguing, cat and mouse game where it's never really clear who's the cat and who's the mouse.  The Candidates are given Greek letters in place of their names, and are given over to their own devices in a lawless environment where practically anything goes -- and everything is being recorded.

First, the good:

The set design (uncredited) is simple and effective.  Black walls with Jackson Pollack-esque spatter paintings surround a neutral space with spare furniture.  Long banners carrying Orwellian slogans hang from the high ceiling of Asylum Lab, a pleasant use of vertical space and a constant reminder of the reality the characters live in.  The lighting (Kristen Hammack) is effective; realistically framing a cold and clinical room yet shifting into a more expressionistic mode as necessary.  Takashi Morimoto attires the cast with appropriate utility.

Sofie Calderon is a delight, instantly believable as the outgoing, amiable Zeta.  Jeremy Mascia brings a very realistic charm to Delta, walking the line between reality TV show parody and a hopeless Tomorrowland.  Akemi Okamura brings heart and hurt to a very lonely yet ambitious Gamma.  Perhaps the most difficult role in the piece belongs to Eric Delgado, as the inhuman Baylian, a subservient servant eager and willing to please.  What could have become a Twilight Zone-style cardboard cutout is given uncomfortable dimension by Delgado.  If his level of commitment had set the bar for the rest of the production, I would not have to progress to ...

The not so good:

The play never really lives up to its potential.

I don't believe these people want the position.  We are told, through vignettes and dialogue at the top of the show and through the promotional material that this play is set in a dystopian future.  "The Great Down Turn" has plunged us into mass unemployment and destitution.  Only The Concern can possibly save us, and they are only offering one job that hundreds of thousands of people applied for.  Where's the hunger?  The ambition?  The desperation?  The recruits don't behave like a group of people who have to scavenge for sustenance.  Entering a room with food on a nearby table, they hang back, seemingly not interested in something that should be dear to them.  Without a sense of urgency, there is no sense of danger and no sense of risk.

The problems with the play are embodied in a single prop:  The knife that one character pulls on another early in the show is the same generic breakaway knife that joke shops have sold since who knows when.  It is instantly identifiable as a fake; a dull-edged, plastic toy that couldn't possibly hurt anyone.  We in the dark are willing to suspend our disbelief and go on this journey, but the folks taking us for the ride need to meet us halfway.

(The one exception to this curious lack of specificity may be found in Mascia's Delta, who stuffs rolls and fruit in his pockets at a couple of points in the play.  This is a fantastic specific; the show needs more moments like this.)

It also doesn't help that every ten minutes or so, someone in the audience popped open a can of beer or soda.  It doesn't help that late arrivals weren't held in the lobby until the first black out.  When you are staging a thriller, you must maintain a thread of tension between the action onstage and the watchers in the dark.  Lose your audience, and you are sunk.  Any extraneous distraction must be eliminated -- for god's sake, tell your audience to open their cans before the show starts!

The net result of all this is a laughable climax, lacking the dramatic punch it should have.  I can see the effect they were going for and I am truly sad they didn't hit it.  I don't doubt the sincerity and passion of the folks involved in PianoFight LA.  I believe they have great potential to make their mark on Los Angeles theatre landscape, but their ambition needs to be tendered with specificity.  If they focus on those details, making every choice count, there's no limit to what they will be able to do.

The Position is performed Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm, through October 9th.

Asylum Lab is located at 1078 Lillian Way in Hollywood, California.  Street parking is available on the side streets behind the theatre.

Tickets are $20 at the door or online at

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