Second Thought Theatre
CORK'S CATTLEBARON & TOPEKA
Directed by Eric Steele
BOB BIRDNOW'S REMARKABLE TALE OF HUMAN SURVIVAL AND THE TRANSCENDENCE OF SELF
Directed by Lee Trull
Barry Nash - Bob Birdnow
Reviewed Performance 3/23/2012
Reviewed by David Hanna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
"Rain on the Scarecrow" by John Cougar Mellencamp. "Fake Empire" by The National. "The Greatest Sum" by The Avett Brothers. "Tougher Than the Rest" by Bruce Springsteen. These songs have three things in common. All of the performers are from various parts of the American heartland (Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina, and New Jersey, respectively). All of the songs are lyrically or musically tied to the lives of average working Americans. And on Friday night, these four songs played consecutively before Second Thought's remarkable production of Eric Steele's The Midwest Trilogy.
Steele conceived this project four years ago while traveling across the Midwest as a corporate salesman, finding the isolation of travel was a "time to think and become more observant." His writing is open and inviting, with no judgment. Steele develops his characters before the play ever starts, dropping in on a singular moment or event rather than try to create an arc within a complicated plot. Neither the films nor the play presented in The Midwest Trilogy are complex, but the depth of character in the writing is incredibly engaging. In a world obsessed with plotlines, origin stories and special effects, Eric Steele is a refreshing change of pace.
Walking into Bryant Hall, the space itself is immediately noteworthy. Black curtains block three of the walls, while green carpeting with a yellow diamond pattern covers the entire floor except for a tacky blue-carpeted platform that acts as the stage. Blue leather chairs are lined up neatly in several rows, completing the full vision of a corporate conference. There are even nametags and a Sharpie sitting next to a pitcher of coffee, all inviting the audience to buy into this experience. It was immediately apparent who was invested in the evening just by who wrote their name on a sticker and who didn't. Second Thought creates a distinct experience from the very beginning, and perfectly sets the tone for the entire evening.
The two short films are presented as "instructional" videos, as if the audience is a sales team that has been drug into a conference room against their will. Steele's films, though, are anything but instructional. The first, Cork's Cattlebaron is a snapshot of corporate power dynamics over a steak dinner. Brady, an experienced salesman, is celebrating his protege Jon's rise to power within the company. He has an incredible gift for gab, but has a bombshell dropped on him before the salad arrives. Steele draws the audience in with humor and then pulls the rug out from under them. It's an incredibly effective, realistic film that showcases Steele's ability to seize the audience's attention.
Topeka, the second film of the evening, is a more unsettling, tense story cultural conflict in the center of the country. A young salesman, Layne Edelman, is thrust into conflict when his belongings disappear after going to the restroom. Steele says he was inspired by The Westboro Baptist Church and the numerous conservative communities scattered throughout the state of Kansas. It shows in the Pinter-like subtext and insinuation of the locals. Of the three pieces, Topeka is the most disconcerting and is completely different than the first film. Taken together, though, they're a perfect teaser for the main event.
The highlight of the evening is Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self. The premise of the entire monologue is explained in the title of the piece. One man stands up on stage and proceeds to tell his unique story of tragedy and determination. At first, it almost seems as though Steele, director Lee Trull, and Barry Nash are all setting up an elaborate joke on the motivational speaking circuit. For a moment, we're led to believe that Bob Birdnow is a facsimile of bad self-help gurus and testimonials.
About halfway through the monologue, though, something changes. Instead of a joke, Birdnow begins to recount a harrowing, gripping tale of destruction, will, and survival. This tale isn't funny or satirical; it's gripping and dark and terrifying. Steele's writing is at its best in Bob Birdnow, giving the audience a raw emotional account instead of a pep talk. He heightens and elevates the language to make the gruesome details of the story tangible to the audience, but doesn't bog the play down in overwrought or pretentious verbiage. Steele strikes a perfect balance between reality and poetry, and once again draws us into his character's world until we feel completely immersed.
It's Barry Nash, though, who truly makes Birdnow's story come to life. Nash gives one of those rare performances where he blends measured technique with absolute believability. Nash is pitch-perfect in his performance, hitting every beat and moment perfectly and adapting beautifully to his surroundings. On Friday night, only 7 people were in attendance. With that little energy in the room, you might think Nash would have a problem connecting to his audience. Instead, Nash played upon the awkwardness of his jokes falling flat and continued to struggle through.
Nash's commitment to his character is astonishing. The deeper Birdnow descends into a hellish nightmare, the more honest and vulnerable Nash makes himself to the audience. There are points in the performance where I, as a reviewer, question whether or not this actually happened. Had this man actually gone through this? Is he actually missing an arm? Is this a true story that Steele has recreated? Second Thought doesn't hide the fact that The Midwest Trilogy is fiction, but Barry Nash's incredible performance immerses us in a complete theatrical truth.
Credit must be given to Lee Trull for guiding Bob Birdnow through its pacing and transitions. Trull doesn't keep the action static, but allows Nash to subtly move to indicate different ideas and emotions. At one point early in the monologue Birdnow goes to the back of the room and grabs a cup of coffee, talking to the audience from the other side. The audience is forced to turn around to look at him, a subtle choice that invests the audience even more in Birdnow's character and story. Trull's choices are minimal but effective, allowing the performance and the character to brilliantly shine
Perhaps the only disappointment of the evening was how few people were in attendance. In an impromptu meet-and-greet afterwards, Nash, Steele and Second Thought Co-Artistic Director Chris LaBove said that there were larger crowds expected. There's no doubt, though, that The Midwest Trilogy is a performance everyone should try to see. Bob Birdnow is a piece that may become repertory in the next few years, yet in this production it's performed to balanced perfection. Add to that two fascinating films that explore the conflicts, struggles, and emotions around corporate America. The whole evening is a one-of-a-kind theatrical experience that cannot be missed.
If you do make it out to Bryant Hall, make sure you put on a nametag. The choice will not be disappointing.
THE MIDWEST TRILOGY
SECOND THOUGHT THEATRE
Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys Campus
3636 Turtle Creek Blvd, Dallas, TX 75129
Plays through April 7th
Thursdays & Sundays at 7:30 pm
Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 pm
Regular tickets are $22.50, senior/student tickets are $15.00.
Industry Night/Pay What You Can Night?Monday, March 26th, 2012
To make a donation, become a member, buy tickets or to find out more information, please visit www.secondthoughttheatre.com or call 866-811-4111