Out of Iceland
nytheatre.com review by Aimee Todoroff
March 29, 2012
There are three rules to live by when making Iceland your home. Paraphrased from Drew Larimore’s whimsical script, they are:
- Do not go into the ocean
- Stay away from the trolls, and
- Whatever you do, never ever go into the Middle alone.
The Middle, we learn, is “more dangerous than the sea and more tricky than the trolls… a Bermuda Triangle of Arctic, where you can’t protect your secrets.”
In the comedy-folklore mash-up Out of Iceland, presented at walkerspace by Alfred R. Kahn in association with Culture Project, Caroline, an American writer with a painful secret, is compelled by the story of two lost explorers to visit Askja, Iceland. At the top of the show, she has literally fallen into a volcano and has been rescued by a cowboy named Hal. Caroline is running from her past, Hal is hiding from his, but the spirit of Iceland has plans for this pair, and sends Thor, a magical, mischievous troll-type being referred to in the play as one of the “hidden people,” to make sure that they comply.
The tone of the play is lyrical, and the action more metaphorical than realistic. The audience is asked to take certain leaps of imagination with the characters, and the striking design of the play serves this end very well. Visually, the motif of being alone in a large space is repeated throughout the play in ways that vary in scope from the extremely small to the oversized, but are always done creatively and with a sense of lighthearted fun. The set, designed by Narelle Sissons, provides some of the most awe-inspiring and poignant moments of the play (going into too much detail would ruin the surprises, which were highlights of the show). The haunting original score by Ryan Rumery and sound design by M. Florian Staab integrate well together and propel the action forward. Along with Paul Whitaker’s lighting design, they bring a sense of wonder to the visual landscape.
The premise and stunning visual effects promise magic, and the character of Thor delivers. Played by Lea DeLaria, Thor manipulates the two mortals and the world around them with a panache that is at once earthy and otherworldly. Using only her voice and impressive physicality, she is able to transform herself in the blink of an eye from a diminutive sprite to a menacing titan, bringing with her the power and gravitas of ancient, fabled gods. As the gender-bending Thor, Lea DeLaria’s performance is a mix of the dark, dangerous Emcee from Cabaret, the hard-won practicality of Frances McDormand in Fargo, and the comic timing of Carol Burnett. In other words, she is utterly unique and always enjoyable. She is helped by two non-speaking underlings, listed in the program as stagehands Rebecca E. McBee and Stephanie Hoiser, who give quite good performances as well. I wouldn't be surprised if one of these ladies doesn’t end up in larger roles in the future, since she was particularly connected to each moment she was on stage.
In a production with such strong flights of fancy, the heart of the play should be the relationship between the two human characters, Caroline and Hal, played by Jillian Crane and Michael Bakkensen respectively. The script asks the audience to accept that these two are fated to be together by stating it outright a number of times, but their relationship seems to develop out of a compulsion rather than any genuine feelings for each other, which is problematic. Director Josh Hecht’s bold staging, while always interesting, focuses on the emotional distance of the characters without establishing a desire for closeness or the tension created by that longing, which I so desperately wanted to see from these charming actors. These characters should be a grounding force that connects the audience to the story, but neither was rooted in a deep sense of realism, nor were they otherworldly like Thor. While being “in the middle” is a wonderful metaphor for the larger arc of the play, the somewhat realistic/somewhat whimsical nature of these performances, shown through Caroline’s large gestures out to the audience and Hal’s comically thick accent, obscure the heartbeat rather than amplify it. Despite this, Crane and Bakkensen are both immensely likable actors and bring delightful innocence to their portrayals of lost adults in a fairy tale world.
Fast-paced and fun, Out of Iceland is a visually surprising and engaging comedy that asks its audience to stand at the volcano’s edge and explore the Middle, which is a very scary place. It challenges us to go forward, but warns that we will never make it unless we can find someone to share the journey.