nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
May 12, 2006
The four writers of Stone Soup Theatre ’s new play Penetralia offer a quote from the Bible that is taken from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that states, “…for now we see through a glass, darkly.” Paul means that we have spent our lives believing that we are seeing things clearly—that we are seeing the whole picture—but in fact we are not seeing things as they truly are, only a murky outline and we compensate by filling in the details with what we already know. For me this quote is the active ingredient in this intriguing production.
The people in the world of this play see everything through the rose-colored glasses that they’ve created for themselves. In this sci-fi story, the folks in a small village (and possibly everywhere else in the world) have moved beyond a society where people are allowed to keep secrets. They’ve even gone so far as to have developed the ability to converse telepathically. So in this world you can’t even have private thoughts because your neighbor merely has to touch you and they instantly know everything that’s churning in your mind. As the plot unfolds we discover a member of the village who has even greater and potentially dangerous mental abilities. As he begins to develop these abilities the delicate fabric that binds the villagers together begins to tear, and paranoia like a virus spreads throughout the village.
The producers/writers make no secret of the fact that they are summoning the secret-keeping regime that is currently ruling this country. Early in the play they emphasize the damaging effects that secret-keeping can have on a society. Indeed, honesty and transparency are what we want from our leaders, though we have grown to accept the fact that our leaders will lie to us. At one point the Magistrate of the village even says, “You can’t lead by telling the truth all the time.” This may or may not be true, I can’t really tell because I too “see through a glass, darkly…” I do not see the whole picture and I probably won’t recognize or believe that I’m seeing the whole picture even if did. This is why I think the aforementioned quote is the foundation of this play. The people here don’t recognize the dangers of prohibiting private thought. They believe they see clearly—more clearly than their ancestors (us) who used to hide thoughts. However, as we’ve rediscovered recently, when you attempt to restrict individual freedom in the name of public safety you get neither. It is their belief in their self righteousness that leads to their downfall.
The writers, Randy Anderson, Stephanie Farnell-Wilson, Adam Hunault, and Joshua Tjaden, create a distinctive world and tell a great story. The dialogue has moments of poetic beauty and unexpected humor. Also, they cleverly cover the exposition of how their society came to be in a song that is played and sung live in a frame of teaching school kids about their history.
Director Nadine Friedman does a decent job creating the atmosphere in which the world of this play can live and I enjoyed the crisp pace. She also uses the minimal set very effectively. However, and this may very well be no fault of hers, the acting is very uneven.
The ensemble is good but there are some weak links which makes for some choppy and hard-to-watch scenes. However, there are some scenes that soar. For example, the final scene is absolutely unforgettable as are a couple others. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what this production would be like had the cast been as strong as the script.
One final thing to note, the title of the play: Penetralia. It sounds like a combination of penetration and genitalia but actually it refers to the innermost parts of a building and can be used to refer to the secrets we keep, e.g., the penetralia of the soul. But I was not familiar with this word and when I told friends what I was seeing they asked if I had started reviewing pornography. That said, Stone Soup Theatre may want to consider a title that is more accessible because their show is worth seeing for its extremely relevant social commentary.