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One Extraordinary Darkness
By Judith Newmark

Climbing the stairs to the garret of the stately old house where "One Extraordinary Darkness" is playing, some members of the Saturday night audience glanced through the open door of a bathroom. Where a young man lolled in the tub.

Later, after the audience had relocated to the garage for the play's elliptical conclusion, a man stormed in to protest something about parking. Despite what some theatergoers assumed, he wasn't an actor, and he wasn't part of the show.

Does anybody have more fun doing theater than the OnSite company?

Specializing in site-specific theater, OnSite presents new plays tailored to unusual spots around town. When you're in the mood for something different, they can't be topped.

OnSite continues that nontraditional tradition with "One Extraordinary Darkness" by Elizabeth Birkenmeier, a spooky little drama set in 1934.

As the play opens, Clarence (Joe Hanrahan) — a physicist, or perhaps a metaphysicist — almost trembles with excitement. He believes that, with the help of his gifted son (Robert Birkenmeier, the playwright's brother), he is on the verge of a stupendous breakthrough. Clarence's unstable wife (Margeau Baue Steinau) and their lovely, oddly precocious daughter (Adina Talve Goodman) are on hand for the occasion, along with Clarence's students. That last group is us — the audience.

The actors are so at ease, they seem as if they really do live in the Green Center. Steinau, who variously treats the long, curved staircase as her personal stage and her bed, implies an intimate, physical relationship with the house that suggests years of occupancy. She and Hanrahan make a persuasive married couple, too.

Director Bill Whitaker has Clarence lead us about the house and grounds a little more than strictly necessary in terms of the story, but in terms of OnSite it makes sense. Every time we move, we change our relationship with the actors — and, perhaps, with the drama. At the very least, we get a chance to stretch.

One Extraordinary Darkness
Reviewed by Robert Strasser

Like the train in Furry Lewis's blues classic "Kassie Jones", the Green family hurdles towards an inevitable big bang. The Greens inhabit OnSite Theatre's newest play, One Extraordinary Darkness. It takes place in 1934 during the rehearsal of a physics demonstration.

The play is performed at the Green Center out in the backwoods University City. This is the point of OnSite. They take a location and write a play inspired by it then perform in it. They've performed in such diverse locations as a bowling alley and an art gallery. This time out they have the big house, the garage and the bio-dome of the Green Center to work with.

I was intrigued to see how theater on site differed from regular old theater on stage. For the most part all the usual theater elements are there. You have the plot involving the Green family and Clarence Green's mad quest to prove the existence of dark matter using his son. You have entrances and exits. You even have period costumes.

But then there is a moment near the end of the play that is so wonderfully staged by director Bill Whitaker that I think I actually pointed to make sure my surrounding audience members saw what I saw. It's a subtle, powerful and a visually striking use of the garage doors, the darkness of night and the street light off in the distance. The view and revelation I had at that moment could never be duplicated in a theater.

The original script by Elizabeth Birkenmeier is imaginative. All four of her characters possess histories and quirks that keep them from being one dimensional. They could still use some more flushing out. The son, Emet, in particular needs more depth . He is vital to the plot, but despite all his quirks, I never really understood his motives. Because of this, the ending felt abrupt. Faye, the daughter, on the other hand, is Birkenmeier's most complete creation, and the play gains momentum when she enters in the second scene.

Bill Whitaker's direction makes sure that location, actors and audience interact seamlessly. Before the play even starts, you walk by a character sleeping on the stairs and another sitting in a tub. Characters also hold doors open for you and guide you from one room to the other during the actual performance. This interaction, which is half the fun, makes OnSite Theatre a unique experience.

The four person cast is a pleasure to watch. Joe Hanrahan plays the disheveled absentminded Clarence Green with great energetic delusion. Margeau Steinau captures the frustration of a stepmother and the narcissism of a fading actress. Robert Birkenmeier's, Emet, has the right amount of other-worldliness. Adina Talve-Goodman tackles the juicy role of Faye and imbues it with spontaneity and fire.

One Extraordinary Darkness
Reviewed by Ladue News

Story: Despite their name, nothing is particularly translucent in the Clearwater family. Father Clarence, long ago dispatched from the college where he taught physics and religion, spends his time in 1934 delving into the mysteries of “dark matter.” He’s assisted in these endeavors by his son Emet, whom Clarence believes has died and returned in some ethereal state. Emet does have the ability to forecast an individual’s date and nature of death, for what it’s worth. Daughter Faye enjoys masquerading as a man and, in general, tormenting her father and her stepmother Lillian, a former actress with a penchant for narcolepsy, feigned or otherwise.

Now, it’s time for a brave new experiment by Clarence for his “students,” who may or may not be present in the family home. Is Clarence absent-minded, insane or a scientific genius? Is Emet dead or not? Is Lillian able to separate fact from fiction? Is Faye comfortable with the family dynamic? Stay tuned.

Highlights: OnSite Theatre Company, which specializes in site-specific presentations, dabbles with the supernatural in this world premiere effort by Elizabeth Birkenmeier written specifically for performances at The Green Center. Reputedly haunted, The Green Center is a University City-based arts and environmental organization dedicated to helping people understand the natural world. For One Extraordinary Darkness, the playwright and her cast take their audience throughout the house as well as a garage and a greenhouse situated on The Green Center grounds.

Just a little more than an hour long, Birkenmeier’s work is a tantalizing and tasty treat for Halloween, even if it borrows ideas directly from two episodes of The X Files, one that dealt with black matter and another that focused on a man who could predict death. Even so, Birkenmeier’s approach is fresh and appealing, and made all the more ingratiating by Bill Whitaker’s crisp and clever direction of an engaging cast. Kudos go as well to stage manager Justin Rincker for smoothly handling the challenging logistics.

Other Info: The quartet of characters are played delightfully by Joe Hanrahan as Clarence, Margeau Baue Steinau as Lillian, Robert Birkenmeier as Emet and Adina Talve Goodman as Faye. Each brings a whimsical quality to his/her performance that richly taps into the fertile script and welcomes interplay as well as introspection by audience members. Beneath the pseudo-science and crackpot theories flows a strong undercurrent of familial devotion that weathers the stormy vagaries of life.

Above all, One Extraordinary Darkness succeeds because it follows the tried and true dictum of the best ghost stories: Making the unbelievable ever so believable by the sheer will of its characters.

Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.







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Revised: October, 2007
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