nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
May 2, 2008
Powerfully poetic and disturbingly familiar, playwright Torben Betts pits truth against complacency in his play, The Unconquered, with enough wry humor to easily transfix the audience for an uninterrupted 75 minutes. Using his own blend of parody, Greek chorus, June Cleaver, and teenage rage, Betts comes up with a potent brew that is surprising, compelling, and unpredictable.
The story, which is simple enough, is a mere vehicle for Betts and his imaginative use of language. In it, an intelligent teenage daughter, The Girl, rails against the corruption of the world, and specifically against her complacent and loveless middle class parents, Mother and Father. The question is, what would it take to get them to value familial love and emotional integrity above the accumulation of goods? Betts raises the stakes scene by scene, turning the internal battle into a larger war. A Soldier, deployed to defend the city, spreads his share of destruction. With it, he adds a dash of the absurd.
Humor, you say?
Well, not laugh-out-loud, Saturday Night Live-type humor. More like spotting a favorite uncle you haven't seen in a long time standing on a soap box on Broadway confessing the sins of your parents to a crowd of friends bent on listening. Familiar, horrifying, ludicrous, fascinating. The playwright's clever use of word association propels the story at an astounding speed and the cast, fantastic in every way, delivers an evening of artistry equalled by the director and the design team.
Alexandra Mathie plays the dutiful Mother with the right mix of cheer and forebearance. She has an exceptional moment when she ages before our eyes. Neil McKinven more than meets his character's responsibilities as the pompous, cowardly Father, who repeats the sins of his father. Nicola Harrison as their daughter and the play's moral compass gives us all the outrage of a teen wanting to be heard and looking for a pocket of honesty, anywhere. Neal Barry rounds out the cast as the Soldier, who takes what he wants with the innocence of one who doesn't know any better.
Part of the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59, The Unconquered keeps the audience guessing. Attribute this to whimsical, eye-catching sets by Keith McIntyre and arresting costumes by Catriona Maddocks. McIntyre's black and white set, held together by Velcro, is a marvelous conflation of the 21st century and the 1950s. It establishes the tone of a cartoon about to come alive, disassembles into a claustrophobic carnival, and ultimately collapses into a flat surface without meaning. The steep rake of the stage and the one-dimensional props give the characters an elliptical appearance and define their home as little more than an empty cardboard box. A glowing miniature home sits by its side as a warm beacon of what it could be. Maddocks's costumes, too, are black and white. Most noticeable are Mother's polka-dot shirtwaist with crinolines and Father's bold, anything but pinstripe, suit. All the characters appear in "white face," adding to the thought-provoking absurdity on stage. Peter Vilk contributes to the ensemble effort with his excellent sound effects as does Jeanine Davies with her lighting.
Muriel Romanes directs with a sure hand, driving the cast through the script like a Jag on an empty throughway. The result is a breathless and impressive ride. Do not miss this extraordinary production. The Unconquered is a Stellar Quines Theatre Company presentation.