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The singularity of absurd

BY JUSTUS FLAIR | MARCH 06, 2014 5:00 AM

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Standing on stage, gesticulating wildly, and flitting around may seem an actor's job, but that didn't stop director Eric Forsythe from climbing out of his seat in the audience and doing just that.

Only 10 feet from a pair of young actors at a rehearsal for Absurd Person Singular, the latest Mainstage production from the University of Iowa Theater Department, Forsythe paused the pair continually, not letting a moment go by without tweaking it to perfection.

As the couple repeated lines and actions, altered just slightly, Forsythe nodded his head, silver hair flopping, and mutter a quiet, "Good, good," before moving to sit again. His reprieve never lasted long, though; soon, he was at it again, modifying the smallest of details.

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With a comedy such as Absurd Person Singular, UI theater Professor Forsythe said, the details are crucial. The show focuses on three couples on three-consecutive Christmas Eves set in three different kitchens. The show will be performed in the Theater Building's Thayer Theatre at 8 p.m. today through Saturday and 2 p.m. March 9. It will also run March 12-15 at 8 p.m. Admission ranges from $5 to $17.

"This play is precise, and it's challenging, and yet we have to make it look easy and fun," Forsythe said. "Our goal is to make it authentic and believable and still funny. Alan Ayckbourn [the playwright] is known for taking on topics you may not think could be taken humorously and he finds ways through his understanding of human nature and makes it funny."

Thanks to Ayckbourn, Forsythe and his team have the challenge of making an electrocution and several attempted suicides comical.

"If it gets too heavy and we feel too much sympathy, it's no longer funny," said assistant director Marina Johnson. "But it also has to be done with the correct amount of seriousness, too, because if you're just playing it funny, it's not going to be funny. In this show the language is just so important."

The language was further complicated for the actors because the play is British in origin, meaning the actors had to look up phrases and jokes that were unfamiliar to them.

The obstacles did not end there. With a script that covers only three days over a three-year time period meant the actors and directors had plenty to decide and discover.

"When Ayckbourn set about writing this play, he was interested in portraying the effects of offstage characters and offstage events and how they affect what happens on stage," Forsythe said. "It's the sort of thing he loves to do, is take on these astonishing challenges of techniques and make them work. So it was important for us to fully create those characters."

In rounding out her character, undergraduate actor Lani Engstrom, playing Eva Jackson, said she and her fellow actors worked closely with each other and Forsythe to determine the offstage happenings.

"We had to figure out what was happening in between acts," Engstrom said. "All three of the couples' incomes are changing greatly, and you can definitely see that simply with our costumes throughout the show. All of the actors had to come up with our own stories of what our characters were doing between the three Christmases."

As the actors were filling the show's gaps, scenic designer Kevin Dudley was busy filling the stage. With three kitchens to build, Forsythe called the set an "engineering feat."

"[Forsythe] wanted to maintain a level of realism," Dudley said. "When you design realistic rooms, you are obligated to give audiences expected furnishings. For example, you need a couch in a living room and a kitchen requires a sink, a refrigerator, some sort of cooking device, and cabinets.

"In this case, it is multiplied three times."

Besides just tripling the work load, this show posed a special challenge for Dudley; Forsythe said he placed great emphasis on the set.

"People live in their kitchens, they entertain in their living rooms," Forsythe said. "So there are supposedly Christmas Eve parties taking place in the other room off stage, and yet the real activity, the life of these characters, takes place in the kitchen. They use this space to say what they wouldn't say in the other room."

The kitchens, Dudley said, serve as tangible representations for these characters.

"The design concept for this production was to make the kitchens and the design not only fulfill the scripted action but to represent, metaphorically, the occupants of each house," Dudley said. "Color and textures of the spaces were selected with that in mind. In addition, each kitchen shares a common entrance, which represents the leveling nature of humanity. We all come in and go out of this world in the same way. It is what we do in between that counts." 


THEATER
What: Absurd Person Singular
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. March 9; performances continue at 8 p.m. March 12-15
Where: Theater Building Thayer Theater
Admission: $5 for UI students with IDs, $10 youth, $12 seniors, $17 general public


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