Sunday, April 17, 2016

"Dominion"


Dominion
Alan Olejniczak

Don Wood as Hammon & Genevieve Perdue as Mara
The cross-shaped, raised, plywood stage with four, single-paned door frames guarding each of its legs sets the stark scene, accentuated by a few background, skeletal trees and sustained, plaintive chords from a string trio in the shadows.  With no props save one bucket of black stones and with actors in Amish-style clothing, the timing is ominously ambiguous.  Is this Puritan New England akin to The Crucible, a present day isolated community in Idaho, or some post-apocalyptic group in a world full of religious fear and rule?  San Francisco playwright Alan Olejniczak’s newest undertaking, Dominion, is an unsettling, creepy, and totally compelling look at a village whose male-dominant religion rules every aspect of the dreary, fear-laden lives of its inhabitants and whose parallels to our world of today are unnervingly too many.  At Last Theatre presents this world premiere in a tight, tense ninety minutes with a cast that embodies with great skills the play’s harsh contrasts – both shining and shadowy -- of what it means to be family and community.

The Cast of "Dominion"
Hammon is the local prophet and interpreter of Javit, the god of the sect he oversees with a firm hand.  “Listen to me, I will tell you what to believe,” he tells his flock with stern voice.  Don Wood is the tall, solemn, and also sad-eyed Hammon somewhere in his fifth or sixth decade of life who is about to welcome his newest and third wife, the teenage Esther, to his household.  He preaches with chilling vocals meant to shatter any sinful thoughts of his spellbound congregation and sends a warning that will later repeatedly echo loud and clear: “It is a sin to pity those who deserve a just punishment.”  But there is also something weak and weary in those eyes and slumped shoulders which we also hear in his pained prayer, “I have been made prophet but I have not heard from you ... Are you there at all?” 

The Prophet’s domicile is ruled with an iron fist by First Wife, the relentlessly dour and aging Mara, who goes ballistic when the newly arrived Esther’s first act is to shatter a fourth-generation, blue bowl for biscuit-making.  Genevieve Perdue excels in her portrayal of this woman whose strict and sullen outside slowly gives way to reveal a deep grief that defines her every moment and movement.  In this world of older-male dominance, Ms. Perdue’s Mara becomes a moving counter-force who undergoes a transformation that is spell-bounding and inspiring to behold.

The Three Wives: Katharine Otis, Niamh Collins & Genevieve Perdue
The middle wife is an exceptionally sad-and-plain-faced but sweet-in-disposition Rachel.  Katharine Otis brings a sense of mystery and foreboding to her Rachel, declaring early on, “All we do in this house is grieve.”  Rachel is first to smile meekly, first to help, and first to go sit in the shadows.  While a do-gooder, she is also a believer-at-all-costs.  Overlooked by most when she is in the room, her actions become a searing reminder of what a lifetime of being fed dogma can do to a person.

Joining this family of sorts is the squeaky-clean-faced, young Esther, whose red locks peeking out of her white, skull-hugging cap worn by all the women speak to her beauty and her boldness.  As she and the entire community listens to the preaching of her husband-to-be, she locks eyes with a young man about her age; and the quick smile they exchange signals both tantalizing and terrifying times together in the days to follow.  Niamh Collins beings to her Esther youthful lust for life, genuine compassion for others, and quiet courage to cross borders supposedly closed to her.

The object of her illicit smile at ‘church’ is Jubal (Alex Poling), an over-sized version of a still-awkward teenager whose approaching manhood is about to condemn him to ejection from the community.  His widowed mother, Ella defiantly observes, “Everyone here knows why there are no young men in the village” – a village where every young woman is grabbed up by another older man for his newest wife.  As Ella, Teri Whipple is yet another strong woman in this cast whose resistance to the life script pre-prescribed to her by the males around her is written in her every taut, unmoving, facial muscle and piercing eyes.

Teri Whipple, Alex Poling, Don Wood & Nathan Tucker
The most discomfiting member of this clan of sorts is the crippled Amit, an overly pious, power-seeking Elder whose every move seems calculated to pounce upon his chance to become the next Prophet (while all the time declaring his devotion to Hammon, who once saved his life).  Nathan Tucker is relentless in his righteous rants and torrents of threats; and each time he approaches, the loud knocks of his cane on the planked stage increasingly portend trouble.  His portrayal of Amit at times is too eerily in concert with the words and underlying messages of hate that we hear from current despots from afar and even presidential politicians too close at hand.

And it is the similarities to our own present times of this isolated, cult-like group that is most unsettling and spine-chilling  -- a group devoted blindly to its “The Book of Tablets” and ruled with crushing force by its older, male elders.  As the play’s scenes unfold before us, one cannot help but think of dozens of analogies from our own shores and across the oceans that show up every day on our Internet screens, airwaves, and printed headlines of angry men shouting how they are right and everyone else is wrong.  But what is heartening and hopeful in Alan Olejniczak’s powerful script is the way the human spirit of the supposedly weakest and most disenfranchised rises to assert itself above the locked-in-powers-that-be.  Those at the top may ring forth with what they declare is right and wrong; but when those words do not ring true to the Maras, Ellas, and Esthers of the world, Dominion offers us hope.

Rik Lopes directs this able cast with the sensitivity, precision, and conviction the script deserves.  James Hunting has created the set that defines the mood and timelessness so central to the play’s impact, aided greatly by the shadows and pinpointed spotlights of Mike Riggs’s lighting design.  Arthur Oliver’s costumes are stunning in their severity and beautiful in their simplicity.  Finally, the original music of Charlie Gurke as played throughout on violin, viola, and cello accentuates the air of tension and foreboding while also allowing an opening of beauty and redemption to creep through.

At Last Theatre steps forward to premiere Alan Olejniczak’s Dominion, a play that at first appears as somewhere else, maybe years long past, but one that soon speaks of here and now, that speaks to and of our times.

Rating: 5 E

Dominion continues its premiere performance through April 23, 2016 at the At Last Theatre, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Boulevard, San Francisco, Building C, 3rd Floor.  Tickets are available at www.atlastheatre.com.

Photos by Claire Rice

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