BAR HARBOR — As a follow-up to last year’s award-winning and gut wrenching one act play on the topic of madness and deceit, this year, Mount Desert Island High School is plunging deep into the ridiculous with Eugene Ionesco’s “Jack, or the Submission” for the Maine one-act competitions. Like all Ionesco’s absurdist plays, this one is, well, absurd, and often very, very funny, but it also packs a powerful punch when it veers uncomfortably close to home.
Director Casey Rush said that while the play was written and is set in the 1950s, he feels it has a disturbingly relevant message today.
“The play is basically about Jack, a teenager whose parents expect him to submit to their belief system in all ways,” Rush said. “Even the smallest deviation, such as whether Jack loves hashed brown potatoes, becomes a crisis.
“Ionesco is calling into question our collective beliefs and the requirement that our children hew to them. Of course, it’s Ionesco, so he takes this to the point of the grotesque,” Rush said, “But I thought it was a particularly intriguing topic given current events in our country.”
Rush said it is a complex and challenging play for the young actors, with elements of the highly stylized Italian commedia dell’arte tradition. As in that genre, Ionesco stipulated that the characters, except the titular Jack, wear half masks so they must find ways to express emotion without the use of most of their faces.
At a rehearsal Saturday morning, each of the actors, when asked, explained who their characters were and what they thought made them “tick.”
But it turned out to be an unnecessary exercise as, even with the masks, it was abundantly clear when they ran through several scenes exactly who they were.
Jack’s mom, (Rawl Blackett) is a nervous, twitchy woman skirting precariously the edge of hysteria; his dad (Emerson Jeffery) is a self-absorbed, pretentious ass, who despite being miserable in his life, expects his son to follow in his footsteps. The actor playing Jack’s sister (Dezirae Zaman) was not at this rehearsal, but her bouquet of severed doll’s heads, prominently displayed on set, suggest that the girl has issues.
Now we come to the future in-laws, played by Ethan Leonard and Anna Redgate. These two are a pair of apparently gluttonous status seekers whose only mission in life is to produce and raise marriageable daughters. That both of their girls have more than the usual allotment of fingers and noses is seen as an asset. Jack’s intended, Roberta (Rosie Avila), is such an epitome of perfection — as lovely and graceful as Audrey Hepburn (except, of course, for the extra noses and digits) — she actually dances her dialogue.
Upstage in a sealed-off room sit Jack’s Grandparents (Zach Uliano and Moxie McBreairty), who are largely ignored by everyone else despite grandma’s plaintive attempts to join the conversation through a plateglass window.
And then there is Jack, played by Desmond Reifsnyder. This petulant, whiny adolescent is in full rebellion against his parents and the family’s strange living situation, which appears to be a large fallout shelter. He wants to be left alone and at the same time be the center of attention. His unmasked face suggests he has not submitted to the pressure of his family, that he is holding out for something different. Yet one senses a yearning to belong, to be a member of his tribe, so to speak. He just needs someone to help ease him onto the proper path. It appears that this someone, perfectly groomed for such a task, has arrived.
Carlene Hirsch has clearly been having some fun creating the set for this play.
When one first walks into the theater, the initial reaction on seeing the set, bathed in soft lavender and gold light, is “oh what a lovely room.” But then all the oddities start appearing. There is a big, red alarm signal in the middle of the kitschy ‘50s decor; an off-kilter door frame; those dolls heads; a console TV that endlessly loops flickering black-and-white images; and an oversized, overstuffed easy chair center stage that looks like a living thing, crouching there, waiting to dwarf and diminish anyone who sits in it.
Hirsch said she used the design of a popular period chair, then enlarged and elongated it. “My intent is to create imbalance,” Hirsch said, “things disjointed and out of whack.”
While still a work-in-progress, she already has succeeded, and that first pleasing impression is soon transformed into something odd and off-putting.
Costume designer Marilee Marchese also is having a bit of fun.
“I’ve always told Casey that I won’t do ‘50s” she said. “I lived through that era, I hated it. I’ve since broken down and done a few plays from that time, but I’ve drawn the line at the cliché poodle skirt. So, when Casey rather sheepishly asked if I might, please give Jack’s sister one, this is what I came up with. She smiles rather wickedly here as she holds up a miniature replica of the skirt she has created. It is indeed a poodle skirt, but the dog has two heads.
Folks will have a chance to see “Jack, or the Submission” at the Higgins Demas Theater this Saturday, March 3, at 7 p.m. It will be performed at the Regional Drama Festival at the high school on Friday, March 9, at 9 p.m. and once more at the Black Rose Showcase on March 21.