Last Saturday (Feb 11, 2012), I saw “Higher” by Carey Perloff at A.C.T. Unlike the other shows of the season, this play was presented the Theatre at the Children’s Creativity Center instead of A.C.T.’s main theatre. The Theatre at the Children’s Creativity Center is a charming 150 seat proscenium theatre. The only really unusual thing about the venue is this catwalk/ramp over the upstage portion of the stage. On Stage Right it is about 14′ or so above the ground, and across the stage goes up at an approximately 30 degree angle towards Stage Left.
“Higher” is a new play written by A.C.T.’s artistic director. “Higher” is a truly exciting new work. The play concerns itself with two architects (who happen to be dating) who, unbeknownst to the other, enter the same competition to design a memorial to group of people who died in a terrorist attack in Israel. Add to the mix, the Israeli son of one of the victims, and the American wife of another (these two are the co-chairs of the committee of judges for the contest), and the son of one of the architects and you have play that examines the sacrifices artists make for their work (and weather they need to), and a meditation on grief and remembrance.
Perloff’s plot is excellent, and mush of her structure is to be admired. I have three (very minor) quibbles with the play as it currently stands. First, I’m not sure the intermission is in exactly the right spot. The person I attended the performance with seemed to think it belonged one scene earlier. I almost think the play would be strongest without an intermission. Secondly, I feel that a scene is missing. An interesting dynamic is created between the two architects (Michael and Elena), and Michael’s son, Jacob… but the dynamic is never fully explained or explored. Jacob has scenes with his dad, and a scene with Elena, but at no point in the play do we see all three interact together. I would love a scene where the three have to walk the tightrope between polite conversation and the varying likes, dislikes, oppositions and allegiances between the three. My final wish for the script is an over all tightening. There are not scenes that need to be cut — but many of the scenes could have 30 to 90 seconds trimmed from them with no ill-effect, which would make the play fit nicer into a long one-act type of presentation.
The cast was excellent. Rene Augesen, and Andrew Polk as the architects (Elena Constantine, and Michael Friedman) had great chemistry and a great skills at both the comedy and the drama involved in the story. Ben Kahre and Alexander Crowther as the Architect’s Son and the Victim’s Son (respectively) were also wonderful and provided some of the most sensitive moments of the evening. Concette Tomei as the Victim’s Wife was the only person who didn’t seem perfectly cast. She was a fine performer, but I felt the actress’s natural good nature was coming through the “tough-as-nails” character and somewhat diminishing the power of the character. (That said, I have seen Tomei in other plays where she was fabulous, so I do not wish to blame her). Mark Ruker’s direction kept everything moving and believable. Rucker’s direction mixed with Perloff’s script mixed comedic moments with serious moments very skillfully. (The assault with the bagel being a perfect example of the blend of the two.)
To my (highly biased) mind the star of the show was Erik Flatmo’s set. So many of the key ideas of the play were expressed in that deceptively simple set. In the play, the two competing architects have radically different ideas of what the Memorial should be. Michael Freidman’s idea is a soaring glass tower, which is canted at the top, and has the names of the victims etched in such a way that they glow at sunset. Elena Constantine’s idea is a low building in the shape of a grieving praying man. These two ideas, and what they mean becomes the dramatic fodder seperating these two in the contest. Michael thinks architecture should impose its new order on its location, Elena thinks that arhictecture should integrate with its site. On stage, Flatmo uses the competing ideas to create a marvelous tension in the set. Tall steal and glass walls flank the set in an asymmetrical pattern. Between these walls is a graceful sloped wooden wall. The glass connects to Michael’s entry in the contest, the wooden wall, Elena’s. Remember that strange catwalk I mentioned in the theatre. To connect more with Elena’s theory of integrating with the site, the brown wooden wall is at the same angle as the catwalk above it, making a living example of the character’s theory. On this basic set, a few simple items were brought in to suggest every other location. The three offices in the play used the same desk (and in a brave move the desk wasn’t always in the same place even if it was to be the same office). Each office had its own 2 chairs. A bench in a hotel later became a foot board. The Bed was used for thee different hotel rooms. A marvelous simplicity! And in many ways, I loved that visible deck hands came and moved the set. I honestly think any slick automation would have hurt this production. The last thing I loved about the set was the small indent down stage containing “dirt” which allowed the director and actors to make real the feeling of burial and digging so central to the play’s plot.
Gabe Maxon’s lighting was subtle and beautiful. The play of light off of the set made the set (either the wooden wall or the glass towers) come alive. Much like the set, the lighting was kept simple, not drawing attention to itself, but never being less than all it needed to be. The same can be said for David F. Draper’s costumes. They told their part of the story without being intrusive. Will McCandless’ sound design was lovely within the play. I have become more and more disenchanted with “pre show” and “intermission” music. If it is not absolutely completely right it ends up being a distraction to the play rather than an aid. In this case, the music, while lovely, did not mesh well with the play I saw. All of the music during the play itself was wonderful, as were the subtle sound effects.
I recently received word that the play has been extended to Feb 25th, if you are in the San Francisco area, or can get their, I highly recommend it. And I eagerly await its next production. After any first production writers generally take what they have learned about the play and make small (or major) revisions. I would love to see what Perloff does with this play. It should have quite a life.