In a world where people will line up to buy gadgets that display human ingenuity at its finest, and still complain about their lack of features, Eric Overmyer’s brilliant play “On the Verge” restores the fascination with small discoveries and immerses its audience and characters in a wondrous fantasy world known as Terra Incognita, brought to UCSB now by grad student/director Clareann Despains.
Terra Incognita, or “unknown land” in Latin, represents that which is mysterious to the world, and those who explore this uncharted land must do so by opening their minds and bracing themselves for the future.
These explorers are three Victorian women with varying degrees of receptivity. The youngest, Alexandra, is the most progressive, advocating such societal advancements as women wearing trousers and speaking in rhyme. Alex is obsessed with wordplay, and some of the play’s finest dialogue comes from her twisting and teasing of words and phrases like a child with blocks, played with an adorable sweetness by Hasmik Anna.
Fanny, Alexandra’s elder, gives her conservative perspective on the changing Terra Incognita through the eyes of a hard-hitting journalist. In this performance, Madeline Minor gave depth to Fanny’s unwillingness to embrace the future by portraying the character’s personal background with touching realism.
The eldest explorer, Mary, provides the most objective outlook on the future of all three ladies. An anthropologist at heart, Mary looks to the future as scientifically as possible, with her scholarly fascination portrayed excellently by Megan Caniglia; though Mary’s repetitive responses to the time warped setting eventually becomes, in her own words, “annoying.”
The standout performance comes from Dylan Hale as Grover, et al, the many faces of Terra Incognita whom the ladies interrogate and examine without once sounding patronizing. Hale creates hilarious characters out of the play’s vague descriptions, some of the best being the rapping Gorge Troll, the condescending Madame Nhu and the wild resort owner Nicky Paradise.
Unfortunately, Hale enters the play far too long after it begins, forcing the audience to sit through nearly an hour of the three ladies establishing their various idiosyncrasies, while exploring the familiar aspects of Terra Incognita. Even when he appears, the play moves at a snail’s pace, interrupting many of the most energetic moments with spot-lit monologues from each of the ladies as they write letters, journals or they daydream. Each of these asides and scene changes is accompanied by a distracting sound clip as well as a title on a randomly placed television screen that is out of sight for nearly half the theater.
The beautiful set and light design more than make up for the sub-par sound design. The entire stage is painted with swirling silver streaks, and are brilliantly lit to portray a jungle, tundra, a seedy 50’s night club and the limbo between them. With better (or fewer) random sounds from the Performing Arts Theater’s weak speakers, “On the Verge” could have been a truly immersive experience. As it is however, the play, directed ambitiously by Despain, portrays three scholarly ladies as sympathetic people who don’t understand the world through which they trail blaze.
Nearly three hours long, “On the Verge” requires some patience to experience, but then again, so does any vast change. The play successfully enlightens its viewers to that absolute truth.