Anyone who has marked time in the environs of the contemporary office is well familiar with ennui, dread, and paranoia--and that's all before coffee break. Ryan Hill's new play Koogoomanooki, staged by Sandbox Theatre, is a taut, lighthearted, and unconventional comedy that rather gently spoofs the alienation of our workplace kennels while providing a nicely silly surreal tone that distracts from its one-joke nature.
The action opens on a set filled with cardboard boxes and a single desk (Hill's design is simple but visually pleasing). It's the office of Gil Salvatore (Derek Miller), a drone with a future: His new work digs, it turns out, are inexplicably spacious, and he hopes he's being groomed for greatness. So thinks pal Tyler (Nathan Suprenant, playing the annoying coworker for whom one grows inexplicably fond). Assistant Ms. Blanc (Alayne Hopkins), meanwhile, skittishly avoids Gil's attempts at friendship and generally seems convinced he is intent on doing her harm.
With the appearance of Mrs. Behrens (Heather Stone) and her two sinister female assistants (Alia Mortensen and Avye Alexandres), matters take a turn toward the ominous. Behrens, a vague superior to the increasingly befuddled Gil, announces that she is backing his new idea (one he didn't know he had), and that the next morning will see the arrival of some mysterious thing that will change everything.
Stone spends the show moving as though she is connected to a tank of nitrous oxide, swimming through an invisible sea and intoning in a deep slur. She is, in other words, pretty funny. Under Hill's direction the cast goes entirely over the top, with the exception of Miller as the confounded straight man. But there remains a sense of purpose and craft that keeps the ridiculousness from lapsing into tedium.
In one brief interlude, Mortensen and Alexandres, the two toxic admin assassins, discuss the utility of fear, a philosophical indulgence that lost me but provided a welcome change of texture. Then we see the addition to Gil's office that Mrs. Behrens prophesied. I won't spoil the surprise, except to say that it explains the title. It is also very large, and it is furry, and it grows more disturbing--then less, then more again--the longer one is in its presence.
This seems to be a show that will work best for an engaged audience. Put another way, it's kind of thin and at times threatens to float away for lack of weight. But I laughed and I left with the hope that someone, someday, will put poor Koogoomanooki out of its misery. Or else bring it a live goat to devour, I'm not sure which.
Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka cooked up many of the ideas in Madmen and Specialists while in solitary confinement following his imprisonment for opposing his nation's nascent civil war in the late 1960s. Small wonder, then, that it's a fantasy of repression and control, and of the perversion of the spirit and the pull of a people's history in dark times.
This Nimbus staging, directed by Josh Cragun, circles around the play's subtleties and dark humor, though there's a sense that the source material overwhelms the production. A notable exception is Ben Kreilkamp as an old man who voyaged into the heart of darkness and came back with a new god to preach to the maimed and dispossessed. Kreilkamp rages, retreats, and emerges anew as a sort of prophet of madness in a performance of compelling depth and vigor.
Unfortunately the set design consigns his performance to far stage right, and there will be those in the theater with somewhat obstructed views. Which is appropriate somehow, because this show seems like a brilliant work viewed through a foggy lens. Nimbus deserves notice for its bold and smart choice of work to stage, less so for its execution in this case.
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