THEATER REVIEW: “Samuel & Alasdair” at the New Ohio Theater

Samuel & Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot War received an extension for its run at the New Ohio Theater, and their artistic director Robert Lyon cites it as their “first bona fide hit” in his program note.

Here are my thoughts on this strange, lovely, nostalgic, shaking production.

The seventy-five minute piece is a story within a story, told from a distance of both time and space. In Russia a trio of pirate radio enthusiasts, intensely nostalgic and dedicated (to an underground revolution, or to a dead way of life?) in their reconstruction of a memory of the past they’ve lost, retell the story of folk heroes from before the robot war: the boy who, like Cassandra, warned of the comping apocalypse and was ignored, and his brother and the woman they both loved. In the end, as we know from the beginning, the brothers in question were in the midst of a continent now deemed uninhabitable. Their betrayals and their personal interest, and even their love are irrelevant, swallowed by time.

As the Russian team – the Host (Joe Curutte), Dr. Mischa Romanov (Marc Bovino), Anastasia Volinski (Stephanie Wright Thompson) and Alexei “Tumbleweed” Petrovya (Michael Dalto) takes the audience (both their purported audience, and those of us in the theater) through this old, familiar tale, we also become enmeshed in their daily life. What seems at first distant – stories of the olden days – becomes more sharply real as the play progresses, climaxing in a horrific phone call that sent a palpable chill through rows of audience members. But in the end, we understand their isolation – are their odds any better than two boys and a girl who grew up in America’s heartland before the robot invasion? How does a person keep living in the face of apocalypse?

The company captures the same unsettling dystopian aesthetic so many find attractive about works like 1984, or Margaret Atwood, or Terminator, both in the visual construction of a strange steampunkish set and in the attire and manner of each of the characters. Set designer Laura Jellinik and director Lila Neugebauer, along with the cast, fuse the look of the piece with its performed physical expression, with the industrial setting of the New Ohio adding to the atmosphere.

For me, the key to decoding a wider meaning for Samuel & Alasdair lies in its title – a personal history of the Robot War. The name of the war could almost be insignificant, aside from the directed energy pulses and thirty-meter-high alien robots bent on blasting humanity out of history. Every war has enemies, every enemy tries to wipe its opponant off the face of the map. Along the way, they destroy people and lives, and shape the world in new ways. Someone always wants to hold on to the past, even as they stare toward an increasingly frightening future. But this is the personal side of that war. This play talks about the side of the war where loves are lost and lives destroyed in an instant. This is what happens when the opposing side has no desire for or impetus toward peace.

Samuel & Alasdair is a substantial meal of a theater piece, for being only 75 minutes long; well worth both the trip to basement of The Archive on Christopher Street, and worth letting haunt the nooks and crannies of your brain for a few days after the metaphorical curtain goes down.

Check out their YouTube trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e0PpnVBpFYQ