Saturday, February 27, 2010

Note: I’m no longer reviewing theater for The Austinist, but from time to time will post reviews here. Toward that end, here’s my take on The Atheist, a play by Irish playwright Ronan Noone, currently playing at the Hyde Park Theatre. The Atheist, a one-man show, stars Joey Hood and is directed by Ken Webster. It runs about 90 minutes and there’s a ten-minute intermission.

The six of you who read this blog with regularity— thank you— likely already know I’m a huge fan of Ken Webster and the Hyde Park Theatre. Selfishly speaking, I love the space because that’s where the Dick Monologues played for two years. But I also love Ken’s taste in plays (wicked, dark, sardonic), and I know that when I go to see a show at HPT, I am in for an evening of outstanding acting.

So I went to see The Atheist pretty certain it would be another great show. And it was. Though I wasn’t totally in love with Noone’s writing (more on that later), Joey Hood took the piece and masterfully made it his own. I’ve seen Hood in a few shows now and he always delivers. I especially dug his performance as a great manipulator in last fall’s The Collection, a Harold Pinter play also at HPT. In The Atheist, he’s back in the role of big-time string puller, master of manipulation. This time, he plays Augustine Early, a Midwestern journalist suffering from a severe lack of morals. The set is sparse—just Early, his desk, a table, and a video camera. Let’s just say that, ala Chekov, one of these items serves as the old first-act loaded gun and, since I am anti-spoiler, leave it at that.

I will tell you that Early opens up his monologue with a little stage-setting anecdote about a moment in his childhood where he learned— at the expense of being made a bit of a fool— that you can present a piece of information one way, understand that this information is purposefully confusing to the recipient, and use it in your favor. In the case of the childhood incident, the event seems innocent enough— a little word sleight played by a trash collector on the impressionable Early. But the message sticks with the character as he grows up, renounces God, and decides he’s going to be the master of his own destiny.

Early turns the video camera on at the start of the performance, and his image is projected, live, on the top left side of a wall. It didn’t occur to me until late in the show, but anytime the audience wants to look this rather despicable character in the eye, they must look at the projected image, the one floating up above like—yes, you got it—a sort of god. Because Hood-as-Early directs his actual attention directly on the camera, focused on the task at hand, making a permanent record of his version of a very strange series of events that finds him stirring up an awful lot of shit for an awful lot of people.

In fact, if we believe Early, he is responsible for at least one man’s death, another woman’s momentary glory, and yet another woman’s sudden launch to fame. The word “machinations” rolls off his tongue more than once. It’s not a common usage word, and each time he said it, my head called up deus ex machina, which, yep, has a reference to god in it. Bear in mind, holding a degree in English lit from a mediocre university has given me just enough literary interpretation skills to be dangerous. But I’d say that Noone seems to want us to see Early as the character seems to see himself: an atheist in relation to any “traditional” god, yes, but when it comes right down to it, a man who thinks himself godlike, one responsible not just for his own destiny.

(And now, it’s wacky tangent time. Let’s get a little meta here and say that in Hood’s performance, there are definitely echoes of Ken Webster. I mean that as the highest form of praise, not a suggestion of a derivative performance. Webster, who just floored me in his one-man performance of Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), knows exactly how to deliver a perfectly nuanced one-guy-on-the-stage-the-entire-time show. That Hood rises to the occasion of The Atheist and, in my opinion, rises above some serious Noone-related limitations, is a testament to his own hard work, but also a tribute to Webster’s direction. Should we look into God symbolism here, too? Well, just if we want to have some added fun.)

As for the plot of The Atheist—Noone really wants us to super-duper suspend our disbelief. I’m not incapable of this and still there were times when I thought, “Oh, come on Noone, that’s playwriting 101—there’s no fucking way any of that could unfold like that, it’s way too contrived…”

And yet. Whatever criticism-of-plot came to me as I watched the show, I did notice my brain latch on to parts of the story—a journalist using his medium to get what he thinks he wants—and it made me think. Journalism has shifted so much with the advent of the Internet, and what we can and cannot write and publish as journalists has shifted, too. For example, I can tell you at the top of this review that I have a personal love of HPT, which in another place and time might mean recusing myself from reviewing shows there. But now, I can do what I want. And I can even not reveal my relationship to the theater if I so choose. That was hardly the only example from real life that came to mind as I thought about Noone’s message.

Though Augustine Early works in the print world, his adventures there mirror much of what is going on with journalism today. Sure no one is now or ever has been fully objective— hello and welcome to the human race. But for whatever flaws I saw in Noone’s plot, I can’t deny that he offers a quick lesson on how careers and aspirations can be built and torn down, nearly instantaneously, by the cruel god that is mass communication courtesy of technology— anyone can make a movie and distribute it, for example— combined with rampant narcissism and the growing delight so many people take in other people’s dirty laundry. We’re starving for filth—Noone knows it, Early knows it, and Hood brings it home, inhabiting a host of characters as the tale unfolds.

Food for thought? Check. Fantastic acting? Check. Excellent Directing? Check. The Atheist won’t convert anyone to the Church of Journalism, but it certainly does provoke.

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