Lots of aspiring contemporary
playwrights are serving apprenticeships in the grind-em-up, spit-em-out
mills of television. When such writers escape to the freer, headier air
of live theater, they often repudiate their day jobs. Or maybe the day
jobs tag along anyway.
Earth movers: Kristin Wheeler and Ace Heckathorn in Kitchen Theatre’s Archaeology.
Consider Rachel Axler, who was the only
female writer, from 2005 to 2007, on the Emmy-winning team for Comedy
Central’s cable series The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. In her Archaeology, now enjoying a world premiere at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company, one female character contends with three males. And while The Daily Show purports
to be jokey “fake news,” we (and CNBC’s Jim Cramer) have learned it can
be the most trenchant item from any network. Thus we are not surprised
when Archaeology starts out like a slacker comedy and then raises questions on the meaning of mathematics.
The bang beginning the action comes
before the lights come on. In an unnamed college town a mysterious
earthquake has tumbled the house occupied by sunny, ironic Claire
(Kristin Wheeler) and her taciturn roommate Astin (Jake Paque).
Playwright Axler began Archaeology as a graduate project six
years ago in San Diego, where earthquakes threaten, and we never think
the town is Ithaca. Dressed in a maid’s uniform, Claire explains that
she’s employed by the Happy Housekeepers franchise, which sounds like a
job to escape. Astin, a mathematics dropout, is now seeking a career as
a cartoonist, giving his attention to the unpromising subject of corn
Although publicity photos of Wheeler depict leading-lady
good looks, director Margarett Perry has downgraded what nature
provided with glasses, an unstylish hairdo and homely shoes. Similarly,
actor Paque at rest might have the mien of a satyr, but on stage he has
been nerdified with Goodwill duds, a kind of spastic body set and
pencils stuck through his dark curly hair. In many college towns these
days people of the opposite sex live together to save money in
relationships that barely rise to the level of platonic. Perry and
costumer Abigail Smith signal to us that this geek comedy does not
What makes the earthquake mysterious is
that only Claire and Astin’s house has been affected. In Norm Johnson’s
superb set, the doorway, roof and an outside root cellar are all
listing at a 15 degree angle, which Astin says he can’t walk on. “No
worse than high heels,” Claire responds. Both wonder aloud portentously
what happened last night. Could there have been too much drinking?
Astin remembers being clunked on the head by a dictionary during the
quake and is glad it wasn’t the (multi-volumed) Oxford English Dictionary that would have killed him. With both of them there is a desire to return to what came before.
Unlikely rescuers arrive bearing
curative supplies in red Radio Flyer wagons. Jon (Ace Heckathorn) and
John (Charlie Forray) are dress-alike twins in cargo-shorts and
Converse sneakers, like a Lewis Carroll take on Beavis and Butt-head.
The longer-haired, more talkative Jon explains the two names can be
distinguished by the way you pronounce the “h” in “John,” which he
demonstrates, only no one can hear it. In conversation the taller, more
reticent John is henceforth known as “H.” The boys are part of a garage
band that is this close (hold index fingers a quarter of an
inch apart) to signing for their first CD. Meanwhile, they take
professional pride in their day jobs as baggers in a supermarket.
Looking at the door of a tilted root
cellar, Claire decides to lead an expedition down under the wrecked
house to examine the fault line. This leads to the explication of the
title, Archaeology, which turns out to be both actual
and metaphorical. To begin with Claire has to tear off the doors of the
root cellar, and immediately she is digging deeper and deeper. In a
clever theatrical rope trick, we discern that she has dug at least the
depth of another floor, where she begins to uncover the body of a lost
woman. Jon helps but looks at artifacts differently. We see that the
“body” is really portions of a department store’s manikin, which
include a torso with some rather fetching breasts, about 34B. Jon
delights in the “rack of boobies.”
Even when Claire and Jon don lighted
miners’ helmets to conduct their excavations, Astin and H are following
another trajectory. Turns out that Astin was less of a dropout slacker
than he had led us to believe, and he’s still possessed with
mathematical conundrums. One of them will be familiar even to slackers
in the audience, the Möbius strip, the single continuous surface that
has only one boundary in which a line continues at its own beginning.
If we have forgotten, a long speech explains it all. Simultaneously, we
have been noticing that while Jon and H are constantly in the same
costumes, Claire and Astin change to new nerd outfits scene after scene
as if their time is in flux. And the possibility of time travel has
long been present in the dialogue, as in Back to the Future without the clock tower or the DeLorean.
Yet it’s not all legerdemain. All the
characters worry aloud about what hope can be rescued in their lives.
Jon, H and Claire are stuck in menial jobs at the edge of a great
center of learning, and Astin appears to have stumbled near the finish
line of his quest. The earthquake (often a metaphor itself) is this
wrinkle in time that allows Claire and Astin the deepest introspection.
Director Perry, much associated with the edgy comedies of Brian Dykstra, like February’s A Play on Words, gives Archaeology a
wonderful boost. Playwright Axler may have been weaned on Woody Allen,
but she has a weakness for the twee that Perry corrects. Perry also
recruited from New York City two young professionals, Kristin Wheeler
as Claire and Jake Paque as Astin. Wheeler, who has played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,
masters Axler’s penchant for weighty implications under seemingly
flighty surfaces, just as Paque gives us an Astin whose subtext speaks
nearly as loudly as his surface. In this youngest-ever cast at the
Kitchen, two Ithaca College students, Charlie Forray and Ace
Heckathorn, make splashy debuts as the comic disaster relievers.
More than with other recent Kitchen
shows, production values define much of the drama. Ben Truppin-Brown’s
emphatic sound design, Jerry Thamm’s mood-defining lighting and Norm
Johnson’s adaptable set, not all of which can be explained, make for
refined rather than rough magic.
This production runs through May 10. See Times Table for information.
Room with a skew: From left, Ace Heckathorn, Kristin Wheeler, Jake Paque and Charlie Forray in Kitchen Theatre’s Archaeology.