By Piehole; Directed by Tara Ahmadinejad
Off Off Broadway, Experimental Play
Runs through 5.19.17
The New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street
by Ran Xia on 5.6.17
Jeff Wood, Toni Ann DeNoble, Emilie Soffe, Allison LaPlatney, and Ben Vigus in Ski End. Photo by Matthew Dunivan.
BOTTOM LINE: In Piehole's exploration of group dynamics in times of uncertainty, an abandoned ski shop becomes the center of the universe; an overload of experimentation leads to a loss of focus.
The place reminds one of a Hurricane Sandy relief site; it says "abandoned beyond hope" and "yet to completely recover from a disaster" with dilapidated wooden structures holding up a post-apocalyptic realm of uncertainly. The place is what's left of a ski shop.
It starts like a Stephen King novel: a team of explorers stumbles upon the place. They navigate their way through the narrow corridors, flipping on various switches in an attempt to get the lights on. Curiously, each switch animates a part of the deserted space like magic—a clock face that's a moon, a sales counter, a fog machine. The vibe is that there's something supernatural going on, or that this group of millennials have just found a portal to a different universe. And when they finally hit the hostile-looking big red button, fluorescent lights blink on with a buzz, and a woman dressed in corporate attire (Alexandra Panzer) steps in to introduce the place as if making a sales pitch, sprinkled with nostalgia and introspection: "What seems impossible in a hundred years becomes inevitable in a million years, and irrelevant in a million more." Her comments on the disaster and the long history of place lead into the philosophical puzzle that is the remainder of the play.
The focus returns to the group of friends, who discover that they're stuck in the space, yet curiously their reaction to this potentially disastrous situation is nonchalance. They begin playing a series of games, creating rules, coming up with names for each other, and making up scenarios to stave off a sense of dread beneath the surface. A puddle becomes a lake, a mountain display becomes a real slope, a clothing rack is their bus stop, and everyone puts on skis and believes themselves to be soaring through the snow, instead of in a leaky building with dead birds and trash dropping from the ceiling. The pretense finally comes to a halt when three local teens join the mix; in spite of their initial differences, the two camps must face the inevitable change together.
Ski End taps into a wide range of themes that are relevant to the current generation's collective state of mind. Instead of accepting reality, the characters self-deceive, which eventually strips them of the ability to perceive reality at all, even when faced with their failures. However, the extensive amount of time spent on the explorers' improv routines makes the piece tedious at times. There's also a lack of focus in the style of the play. It starts off almost as absurdism, which turns into hyperrealism, and is followed by moments of poetic expressionism, and the actors inserting themselves into the narrative. It's difficult to track who's who with the layers of meta.
The piece features a team of highly skilled and committed actors with perfect chemistry, guided by director Tara Ahmadinejad (the teen actors give dazzling performances that go toe-to-toe with the more experienced company members). However, none of their characters is fully developed beyond some brief spurt of personality. With many gorgeously staged moments and a brilliant design team, the play still falls into the trap of being neither fish nor fowl. Its language imitates that of Charles Mee's work, but somehow lacks a central core to tie together a collage of imageries and ideas. Some of the action sequences recalls moments from the Clubbed Thumb's Men on Boats, but without a narrative grounding the wildly eclectic elements.
Of course, there is value in taking risks and experimenting. Ski End does leave you with more questions than answers, and makes you think about the state of the world we live in and the laundry list of problems we face. However, the experimental elements would have been more effective as an enhancement of the content, rather than the main event. The play is weakened by too many ideas, which means that a narrative with substance is sacrificed, making it a fantastical beast with many heads and not a strong enough body.
(Ski End plays at the New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, through May 19, 2017. The running time is one hour and 30 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 with an added show on Wednesday 5/17 at 7:30. Tickets are $25 and are available at newohiotheatre.org or by calling 212-352-3101. For more information visit pieholed.com.)
Ski End is by Piehole. Directed by Tara Ahmadinejad. Set Design is by Alexandra Panzer. Lighting Design is by Oona Curley. Sound Design is by Joey Wolfslau. Costume Design is by Olivia Gibian. Projection Design is by Matt Romein. Additional Music is by Deepali Gupta. Dramaturgy is by Elliot B. Quick and Lauren Whitehead. Technical Director/Production Manager is Skylar Fox. Assistant Director is Nicholas Orvis. Production Stage Manager is Ann Barkin.
The cast is Toni Ann DeNoble, Kijani-Ali Gaulman, Allison LaPlatney, Maite Martin, Alexandra Panzer, Emilie Soffe, Nicole Suazo, Ben Vigus, and Jeff Wood.