By Peter Sinn Nachtrieb
Directed By Mike Brooks
Reviewed by Todd Zeigler
As much theater as there is in Louisville, and as good as the vast majority of it is, it’s easy to overlook that most of it is mined from Samuel French and Dramatist’s catalogue and presented as the latest interpretation of familiar material. (Look at even Actors Theatre’s offerings so far this season – Dracula, Tom Sawyer, and Jane Austen). One can become so accustomed to the standard way of doing shows that when something completely alien comes along, it can knock one completely for a loop with the freshness and vitality of wondering “What’s gonna happen next!?!”
Theatre ’s Hunter Gatherers by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, who should probably set up a second home in Louisville and would be more than welcome if he did, is one of the best productions to hit Louisville in a long time. It is at once the most absolutely essential example of what a play should be (antagonists who want something and do what they must to get it) and a tour de force of wit and insight into how primal even the most sophisticated people can be.
Two couples gather to celebrate the anniversary of their joint wedding – and a cascade of truths (though they could hardly be called secrets) burst free. That is all the plot summary you’ll find here. It is far more thrilling to discover the play completely fresh.
What can be said is that Hunter Gatherers is a far stronger work than Nachtrieb’s Humana Festival entry this year, BOB. That offering played out almost as a documentary: an academic, didactic overview of events that seem to have already happened, coming to a tidy conclusion. Nachtrieb’s signature style is to set up absurd situations, ground them in completely real circumstances, and push them as far as they can go. Here, he calls his shot, swings, and the ball still hasn’t hit the ground.
The four performers are some of Louisville’s best, and they push their work farther than any previous personal best because this playwright gives them so much to work with. It’s a common complaint that modern plays are easier to read than speak aloud. Nachtrieb boldly runs in the opposite direction. These characters don’t speak as much as essay. What makes it work is the explosive emotion barely veneered by the words. Every line is used to assuage, hurt, intimidate, plead, challenge – the active verbs that make a script a performance. And it is so thrilling to see actors think onstage as the tide ebbs and flows against them. Each also makes small character choices that make them all the more recognizable. You find yourself picking – and switching – sides because you know these people.
Nachtrieb’s dialogue has a musicality and wit to rival Aaron Sorkin’s, and director Mike Brooks has created an ensemble that positively sings. To say Eli Keel owns or dominates the stage isn’t enough. He conquers it, making us completely understand how sweaty asshole Alpha-Male genetics still thrive in polite society. He unapologetically enjoys everything he undertakes – a Stanley Kowalski for the iPhone age.
Leah Roberts is consistently cast around town for her ability to drive a high-tension, high-energy scene. Here she also shows us how she can delicately handle a release. (See the play. What I’m referring to is way more awesome than the way I’m referring to it.) She brings her usual brilliance and then some.
Sarah East is a master of both laugh lines and unexpected pathos. She makes bold choices and completely commits to why every word has to be said. She doesn’t color, beseech or inflect in any way. Before you’ve even registered how funny or heartbreaking her last line was, she’s on to the next one. Amazing to observe.
Joe Hatfield does a marvelous job of making a feckless character dramatically engaging. You want him so badly to fight back. Tricky work, exceptionally achieved.
My only quibble is with the style of fight choreography here. The show does get physical, and the hand-to-skin contact isn’t handled with contact, but with distant swings and hands slapping thighs or the stage floor for the appropriate sound effect. With the high intensity of this show, such artifice is like a pin poking a balloon: it doesn’t pop, but it really takes your attention in a way that it shouldn’t. But it is a choice, it suits Nachtrieb’s theatrical style, and it is consistent throughout. For that, it’s easy to get past to every other marvelous thing about this show.
No less than Jon Jory recently said that one of the biggest risks a new company can take is to produce only new works (while no less than Theatre ’s Gil Reyes was sitting right next to him). Whether classic or cutting-edge, Louisville is a city that supports its theatre, and Theatre  is putting out brand new work that we can get giddily excited about. Do not miss this.
|Photo by Bill Brymer: Leah Roberts and Sarah East in
Theatre ’s production of Hunter Gatherers.
October 14- 22
The Victor Jory Theater
Actors Theatre of Louisville
Third & Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Entire contents copyright 2011 Todd Zeigler. All rights reserved.