"The Awake"Review-A Fine Play and an Interview with the Director

First Floor Theater is currently staging the Chicago premiere of  “The Awake”, by Ken Urban, directed by Josh Altman, through March 12 at Collaboraction’s Room 300 Theater in the Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee. The complex and multi-layered drama is composed solely of beautifully written dialogue, tautly directed by Altman who manages to separate dreamscape from reality, in a play largely hallucinatory in character. In fact, the verbally agile members of the cast, starring Kaiser Ahmed, Scottie Caldwell and Daniel Desmaris, do a remarkable job demonstrating highly-charged emotions while enunciating the intricacies of the script.  Amid the deliberately spare nature of the set- consisting almost entirely of piled-up chairs- all of the actors are excellent at delineating action from non-action, which is one of the themes of the play itself. We, the audience, along with the performers are constantly being charged with finding what is “real” among nightmares, transmuted family members, torturous jobs and the kindness of strangers.

Kaiser Ahmed, Amanda Fink, Matt Thinnes and Barbara Figgins; photo courtesy of Evan Barr

The three characters start out in completely separate roles and each maintains their own distinct identity throughout. Together, they portray the panoply of emotions facing humankind in this turbulent age. The lonely son caring for his ill mother, who feels like he’s at sea; the Canadian of Middle-Eastern descent who is temporarily teaching a language he can’t speak; the Eastern European actress who finds herself with a “Stepford” child and corporate-monster husband with whom the easiest strategy is to engage connubially-all of them find themselves confused and frightened, but not one of them succumbs to terror or despair. How do they manage? As one character puts it, “I close my eyes and imagine I’m somewhere else”. Ultimately, it is their relationships that save them and endow the script with so much courage. Without revealing the end, this reviewer would suggest they come together in an unusual yet humane fashion, creating a warmth and wealth of good feelings not necessarily to be expected in a piece as modern and intellectual as this one.

Kaiser Ahmed; photo courtesy of Lauren Nigri

An interview with Josh Altman, no novice to the theater, with numerous assistant director, dramaturgy and directorial credits, (“Pains of Youth”, “The Beautiful Dark”, “The Glass Menagerie”, “Iphigenia at Aulis”, “And Nothing But The Truth”), mined a deep vein of information about this play and his thoughts about directing and theater’s place in the pantheon of the arts. Some of his remarks, in pertinent part, are as follows:

Scottie Caldwell, Kaiser Ahmed and Daniel Desmaris; photo courtesy of Evan Barr

He very often does a lot of background research for a play he will direct. For this particular play, however, there was so much information already contained within the script, (such as the verity in the torture techniques) that he was able to focus on the human storytelling and the developing relationships between the characters.

Daniel Desmaris; photo courtesy of Evan Barr

Indeed, he spent a great deal of time reading, rereading and thinking about the play, whose author he knew from college at Tufts-Urban had been a playwriting professor of his. Thus, he had a fundamental understanding of how Urban conceives his plays. It was Altman himself who was instrumental in pushing to get the piece performed in Chicago, and he casted it himself. He looked for actors who were “nimble”.

Scottie Caldwell; photo courtesy of Lauren Nigri

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Altman actually dreamed about the play.  He says he loved the metaphors involved:that the three people faced with a seemingly insurmountable life problem actually escaped! They lived in a dream, in an alternative reality, and within this world they meet and overcome their potentially tragic outcome. Altman sounded thrilled when he discussed the “wild and expansive” imaginative aspects of the play. He called it “unapologetically theatrical”, and praised Urban for the great care he took of his projected actors – the play, he said, is “structurally robust”, everything is layered into the text. Then Altman described how, he, too, selected actors who had to be great storytellers, gave them the story, and them gave them their freedom. He worked with the actors on bringing out the inherent poetry of the script. While he claims not to be able to take credit for the actors emoting on-stage, this reviewer noticed one actor whose hands shook and another who wept wet tears. Such evocation surely came from the director's gifted touch through the coaching with which he endowed the written piece. Altman  generously claims the obvious success of the performance is due to the gorgeous language and “the collective imagination of the team.”

Kaiser Ahmed; photo courtesy of Lauren Nigri

Finally, when I inquired how theater informs our lives, the director reported that he’s” just as excited” to make theater as to see it. He loves to watch creative artistic storytelling in which people come together to work and fight for something, to make needful changes and to transform themselves  and their lives. In an age when the horrific is the most easily marketable, it is deeply refreshing to hear this young man's dedication to life-enhancing transcendant art.

Ada Grey and Scottie Caldwell; photo courtesy of Lauren Nigri

I am certain we will be seeing a lot more of this thoughtful and erudite director's  work and we should look for more fine productions from First Floor Theater.

 Go to  First Floor Theater for information and  tickets to “The Awake”.





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