A Mel Brooks/Samuel Beckett-Like Serious Comedy
By: Alix Cohen
October 9, 2023: This is actor Terry Dean’s 407th production. “The accidental result of heavy drug use at a farmer’s market, Terry Dean was born into a harsh and treacherous set of circumstances. Fortune, however, diverted his seemingly inevitable journey…to a life in the theater…He believes himself to be a success, despite what could objectively be described as a trajectory of achievement that seems to be lowering and lowering…”
Mona Barnes is thrilled to be touring this important work …having received her Masters from the University of Salmon Arm…she dedicates her performance to you, the spectator, the reason she has chosen her craft… “In hopes that her performance will perhaps be the catalyst in giving you… a fuller life, a more meaningful life, that is powerful and boundless. It would really thrill her if that happened…”
(Above biographies from the program.)
Terry Dean (Bill Bowers) and Mona Barnes (Esther Williamson) are about one-quarter of the way into performing a show when lights go out in a makeshift theater at a nursing home. He thinks standards have been breached and they should just leave. “Seventy-eight percent of performance is my face!” Nothing will get her off the stage. Mona improvises a few metaphoric lines about leaving darkness, then agonizes over whether to keep the improv without head office permission. They ostensibly continue four hours.
Terry: “Mona, I fear that one day, this play will destroy us.” Mona: “Terry, I hope that one day, this play will remake us.” Their characters in a nutshell. A vehement argument is abated with almost forgotten electrolytes. “Suck, Mona, Suck!” Terry presses referring to the soft plastic containers holding energy drinks. Positivity exercises are satirized.
Booked by The Victoria, Canada Bicycle Theatre Company, the two are wheeling across the country presenting to underserved audiences. Working conditions are rough. They mostly sleep on the road. Showers are catch as catch can. Whoever’s in front calls out road hazards. They bounce and swerve on bikes (attached to stands). At one point, we literally watch Mona inflating and changing a tire.
The Play: “What does it take to make a Great Moment in Human Achievement?” Baron Karl Drais and his family were starving in 1816. They ate their horses. “I wept for hours when my family had to put sweet Elmar andKaiser to letzte-schlafen.” (Terry). The clang of a glue pot sets into motion a series of unwitting achievements: In Mesopotamia, an iron nugget is melted by fire into new shapes. Oo-Dee is the first Metallurgist. 1021 Arabia – “My name is Babwa, and I will invent science. But how will it be communicated?” (Terry) “How about with symbols and sounds and representation of things with words? (Mona)
Doe-Lee-Pa-T invents language. “But what good would language be if people don’t trust each other?” (Mona) “My name is Ma-ona, and I’ll get people to trust each other through religion. But how can I grow the number of believers?” (Terry) “My name Bey-Oh-Eh, and we can grow the number of believers by not being nomadic.” (Terry) We know the wheel is not far behind.
Domino effect through the ages is depicted putting a pot on an actor’s head, whirling into a wrapped blanket, creating fire with a fan and tissue paper flames. Costumes and props (Charles Schoonmaker; Sophie Pott and Greta Leary Morgan) are clever and credible in a cheap-and-portable way. We swing fluidly from Mona and Terry’s trip interaction to excerpts from the play within the play.
Bowers’ shtick is part Robin Williams, part Jonathan Winters, then suddenly grounded. One can see his mime training. Williamson appears to be a cross between Edward Gorey and Jules Feiffer drawings come to life with Perils of Pauline histrionics, then all at once sympathetic. Both actors move like dancers and turn on a dime. Accents are amusingly ersatz.
The Play: “Sometimes a great achievement is about what you’re willing to kill and I kill thousands of people to spread my beliefs,” declares Manifestus Destinus. Early surgery is enacted. “I’ve practiced on hundreds of dead bodies but that is nothing compared to doing it on a living one,” Terry says limping from behind a blanket to reveal the wound is the doctor’s own. ”But if I survive, and it is indeed possible to remove bad things out of a living body without killing it…”
“Laughter, gasps, tears and applause. That’s all they want and all I need.” Terry tells Mona from a sleeping bag. “ “What about disruption? Provocation? Transformation? Catharsis?“ she responds. They talk about the business, he with envy and exhaustion; she with idealistic commitment. One parentheses of invective almost separates them. Problem solving is inspired. “What will you achieve when all the old ways no longer work?” (Mona) “What will you achieve when you have no other choice?” (Terry) One play bleeds into the other provoking the audience.
What we see onstage is a collaboration between two immensely talented actors and their director, workshopped in the Berkshires over time while zooming the playwright. There are, I’m told, no stage directions in the written script. Moment is in almost constant whirlygig movement; facial expressions morph from farcical to sincere. Without the actors’ imagination, skill, and directorial symbiosis, the piece couldn’t exist. Playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb has written a wise and funny piece which benefits immensely by process. (It could successfully be 10-15 minutes shorter.)
It’s impossible to tell where ideas by director James Barry and his cast stop and begin, but Barry has clearly frozen things with adroit awareness. Pacing effectively speeds up and slows down respectively during the play within the play and travel. The stage is well used. Clowning is serious.
Photos by Andrew Greto
The Making of a Great Moment by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb
Directed by James Barry
Through October 30, 2023
259 West 30th Street