Review of Adam Geist, Yale Summer Cabaret
In dramatizing the struggle of its eponymous hero, Adam Geist—in its U.S. premiere, directed by Elizabeth Dinkova from David Tushingham’s translation of Dea Loher’s play—covers a lot of ground. Located mainly in late twentieth-century Austria, Adam, played with impressive range by Julian Elijah Martinez, moves through the modern world as if on a picaresque odyssey. Adam’s restless energy drives the play as he seems to be perpetually in flight from his most recent encounter. Inventive staging, colorful projections, and a varying ensemble put the play across as a series of events that keeps us questioning at every turn.
In his travails, beginning with the loss of his mother and his break with his uneasy and belittling relatives, Adam encounters drug-sellers, druggy Turks, a forthright waif (Shadi Ghaheri), firefighters—including Karl (Kevin Hourigan), who identifies as Sioux—the French Foreign Legion, ultra-right populists, engages in war, and tries to find redemption with cultists of the Virgin. With action that includes a shocking rape, brutal murders, violent attacks, humiliation of prisoners, and questionable choices and rationales, Adam Geist is not a study in its hero’s character so much as a study of the character of modern times, particularly the prevalence of dehumanizing brutality at the bottom of society.
With a name like Adam Geist, we can expect allegory right off. Adam, of course, is the “first man,” God-created in a terrestrial paradise; Adam Geist never knew his father, and his mother—who seems to have indulged in a little molestation of pre-adolescent Adam—is dead of skin cancer as the play opens. Rather than a paradise, Adam's life projects him through what may seem circles of Hell, or perhaps Purgatory. Not an afterlife, this hell comes from other people, right enough, and any saving graces generally wind up dead. “Geist” is German for “spirit” or “mind,” the latter written with a capital M when it becomes a matter of the “world-spirit” that Hegel considered the noumenal force driving things in our phenomenal world (that’s “world of phenomena,” not “really great” world). Adam Geist, then, could easily be the requisite “concrete universal” who might reveal the tendency of history, or take away or take on, scapegoat fashion, the sins of the world, or maybe become a violent, victimized, mentally unstable upstart from a “special school,” just trying to get by. In any case, this pilgrim’s progress does arrive at a certain clarity about himself, and it is left to the viewer how much slack you want to give him, or how touching you find his plight, or repellent his nature.
The Summer Cab’s staging wisely lets Sarah Woodham’s careful costuming give us different locations and interlocutors, rather than cumbersome set changes. All the action could easily be imagined to be happening in some timeless past—as it might look from Adam’s viewpoint. What he remembers are the people who make an impression, like Girl (Ghaheri), who he meets in the graveyard where their respective mothers are buried—his encounter with her is at first endearing, then very unsettling, and finally haunting. Similarly, the kindest person he meets, Karl the Native American enthusiast, played with childlike open heart by Hourigan, seems to provide some personal hope for Adam, before that possibility too is wrenched away.
And so it goes. Elsewhere there are heroic acts, usually with Adam taking the part of someone more powerless than he, and also acts of murderous rage that he barely acknowledges. Martinez shows us an Adam driven mostly by immediate feeling, whose intellect is a few steps behind his more forceful drives. There’s a wild Id on the loose feel about much of what Adam does and his nature seems primarily reactive.
So it’s important that the cast gives him some colorful figures to react to. Stellar in that regard is Brontë England-Nelson who does much of the heavy lifting in ensemble scenes, convincing us that she’s a nervy aunt, a butch fireman, a rapt stoner, a skinhead ideologue, before stepping forward as the creepy small-hood kingpin Reinberger. Sebastian Arboleda gets to engage in a comic monologue as Sergeant Major, a recruiter proud of outfoxing the wily prairie dog; Steven Lee Johnson gets the more unsavory parts, such as a heckling cousin, an autistic skinhead obsessed with cleanliness, and Erich, a belligerent, Muslim-bating mercenary, while Sean Boyce Johnson gives us glimpses of characters—Adam’s uncle, a drug-using buddy, an old man assaulted by Erich—who might provide some learning experience for Adam. Not all the many characters come across as clearly as they might, but the methods that permit these young actors to focus scenes and mannerisms with such quick changes are truly impressive. A high-point is the firefighters’ speech, one of the few merely comic bits in the show. Tonally, it’s a bit at odds, but it is welcome.
In An-Lin Dauber’s set design, a brilliant use of a large section of chain-link fence acts as prop, symbol and set device, while Johnny Moreno’s projections—with becoming graphic-novel-style colors and images, and evocative use of video—add visual interest and imagery. The use of the Cab’s courtyard, while slightly disruptive in terms of logistics, makes for a very dramatic final scene as the open heavens above provide a suitable background to Adam’s acts and speech.
And now, an editorial thought: On the tables at the Cab are questions probing the audience about their expectations in viewing theater. Some questions address “color blind” casting—the notion that the race of an actor is immaterial to the part being played—which is seen as a progressive move allowing more non-white actors to get major roles. But casting actors to play an ethnicity different from their own can open a firestorm over who gets to play whom. In casting Martinez, a non-white actor, as a product of the Austrian underclass, the Cab’s show adds an allegorical level that’s important, it seems to me, in this first U.S. production of the play. When, in his final speech, Adam makes a selfie video addressed to “Mr. President” most viewers aren’t going to be thinking about the president of Austria; they’re going to see a young African-American male trying to put his case before our president, another African-American male, so that when Adam says “perhaps I’m no longer your concern” those lines resonate beyond Loher’s initial setting to take in the current atmosphere of blacklivesmatter. And Adam’s reflection upon some extraterrestrial hope for justice reaches, as intended, beyond international and even human bounds, but also points damningly at the slim chances for justice here and now.
Adam Geist is not a feel-good play, but it is a powerful play that mirrors a time when criminality and heroism, predators and protectors, are as tellingly intertwined in our weekly news reports as ever. Without distorting the original text, the Cab team—Elizabeth Dinkova and dramaturg Gavin Whitehead, with their lead Julian Elijah Martinez—make Adam Geist a tale for our times.
By Dea Loher
Translated by David Tushingham
Directed by Elizabeth Dinkova
Set Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Sound Designer: Frederick Kennedy; Projection Designer: Johnny Moreno; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Costume Designer: Sarah Woodham; Production Dramaturg: Gavin Whitehead; Production Manager/Technical Director: Alix Reynolds; Stage Manager: Emely Selina Zepeda; Movement & Violence Consultant: Emily Lutin; Production Assistant: Ece Alpergun
Cast: Sebastian Arboleda; Brontë England-Nelson; Shadi Ghaheri; Kevin Hourigan; Sean Boyce Johnson; Steven Lee Johnson; Julian Elijah Martinez
Yale Summer Cabaret
July 21-30, 2016