Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Review: Physical Plant Theatre's Agnes & Alfred

Thomas Graves and Hannah Kenah as Alfred and Agnes in Physical Plant's Agnes and Alfred.
I met Austin playwright Steve Moore nearly fifteen years ago, during the high tech boom that found us both working in the tech writing department of Vignette. Neither of us belonged there. I didn't even know how to do email attachments at the time, and in a perfect world Steve would've been off somewhere, solely focused on his creative writing. 

Well, there's good news. I am now a whiz at email attachments and, more to the point, Steve has managed to use his non-office time wisely, spending the past decade and a half honing his creative wordsmithing. Witness Agnes and Alfred, his latest offering via Physical Plant Theatre. Before I tell you about the play, let me warn off those of you who define yourself strictly as romantic musical comedy types. This ain't Xanadu, people. And if you prefer to escape reality rather than confront it full on, you might stick with Angry Birds or the kids' tent at ACL.

But for the rest of you who like to be challenged and provoked and-- I'm gonna say it-- sometimes kinda depressed (but not regretfully) by a show, then by all means get your tickets for Agnes and Alfred before it closes. Directed by Carlos Treviño, A&A follows the 17-year relationship of two people who personify the song I Can't Quit You Baby. The dialogue is super real, Graves and Kenah have truly amazing chemistry together, and the way they fight, well...

Let me step back for a minute here and say that, as Warren and I were driving over to the Off Center, where the show is playing, we were engaged in a spat. Not one of our Famous Arguments, just a little grumbly back-and-forth. To our credit, we have spent years working to spot argument patterns and either stop them entirely or else get more quickly back to the lovey-dovey (or at least non-yelly-belly) side of things. So our argument du jour felt more like a studied act than an actually passionate disagreement, to the point that I pulled out my iPhone and googled "top reasons married couples argue"... in hopes of spicing up our rather lame exchange.

Thus, as you can imagine, when we settled in for a play about a couple that argues pretty constantly, our perception was that this play is definitely Art Imitating Life. And as an expert arguer, I'm going to say Moore got it really right. Please note that, as is my ongoing tendency, I am purposefully being incredibly vague about what actually happens. I think it's important for you to go and see/hear/feel all that for yourself. 

I will say that every scene starts out in a calculatedly misleading fashion, lending emphasis to the old saw about how things-are-never-what-they-seem. Something really interesting is how, though Treviño never dismantles the fourth wall, he nonetheless precariously perches the audience atop it by keeping the number of attendees extremely limited and arranging seating in a fashion that gives everyone a front row seat, as if at a boxing match. We get such a close glimpse of this couple that we can feel them breathing and if they'd started getting it on mid-play I wouldn't have been surprised (I was sort of more surprised they didn't get it on on stage-- that is how well Graves and Kenah capture intimacy). 

Another interesting device-- instead of one stage with changing sets, Treviño uses a good bit of the sprawling Off-Center to create separate spaces for each scene. So the audience moves from section to section as the relationship progresses (a progression also marked by little details like what sort of phones they are using). There was one other kooky device that I didn't totally get-- though I'm not complaining, just observing. To get folks to move from space to space and to sit down promptly and in an orderly fashion, between scenes an assistant steps forward and commands us to "FOLLOW ME" and "SIT HERE." These commands are barked, as if by a mini Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. Not sure if this was to add to the effect of making us feeling squirmy and uncomfortable, and not even sure if Steve had a hand in including this person as a character? At times I wanted to giggle at her conduct, thinking it was supposed to be a joke, but as the play progressed and the staunchness persisted, I wondered if I was supposed to utilize my English degree and assign some sort of symbolism to Ilsa. This I never figured out. No worries, though-- she was but a minor distraction.

If you dig the realism school, do check out Agnes and Alfred before it closes at the end of the month.  (Caveat: Possibly not a good First Date Show.) Shows Thurs - Sat At the Off Center. For more info check out the Physical Plant website.

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