Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 33 / 17 August 2017
 

Real troupers

Theatre


Danny Scheie and Aysan Celik play a pair of actors bicycling an epic historical play across the continent in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's "The Making of a Great Moment" at Z Below. Photo: Meghan Moore
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The laughs come fast and furious as we get to know two actors on a decidedly slow tour across the United States. Their means of locomotion are a pair of bicycles, which may not mean much to their audiences but adds to their own sense of sacrificial nobility. Pedaling to peddle a four-hour theatrical history lesson at D-list venues, their differing commitments to the cause start taking the wind out of their sails, and more specifically, the air out of their tires.

Some of the air also goes out of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's new play before it's over, and not because it runs four hours. That's the running time of the ridiculously earnest play within the play of which we see bits and pieces. "The Making of a Great Moment," the actual play at Z Below, runs only 90 or so minutes, but can feel longer in the final stretches. The two characters exist in a playfully absurd landscape of recognizable dimensions as serious philosophical differences are debated in this world that isn't quite grounded.

Pleasures nevertheless are frequent throughout director Sean Daniels' finely-tuned production that was first staged with the same cast at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Massachusetts. Nachtrieb, playwright in residence at Z Space, wrote the roles of the vagabond actors specifically for Danny Scheie and Aysan Celik after previous happy collaborations, and the fit is sublime.

Scheie is a popular veteran actor of the Bay Area, and his expertly waspish delivery can pull a big laugh from what might otherwise seem a straightforward line of dialogue with just a distinctive fillip on the final word. Celik, who has worked in many cities, may be less-known to local audiences, but she displays a passionate comedic versatility that can hold its own against the formidable Scheie.

They're playing Terry and Mona, members of the Victoria Bicycle Theatre Company of Canada, whose official motto is "We Make the Best of It." Between gigs, Terry and Mona ride on mobile versions of stationary bicycles, as Apollo Mark Weaver's set provides looping dioramas in the background. The tour is hitting a low ebb when we first meet them, as they are trying to make the best of the fact that their latest venue has but one stage light, with a range of functions limited to on and off. Mona is more the trouper, eager to present their inspirational piece of theater despite technical handicaps, while Terry is feeling disrespected by the booking agent back in Victoria. "Why would that bitch book us in this hole?" he rants. "It is a nursing home. A very special kind of hole. The hole before the hole."

The play they are schlepping across the continent is titled "Great Moments in Human Achievement," made up of a series of vignettes imagining eureka moments going back to prehistoric times. When a young girl from 7000 B.C. throws a metal nugget into the fire, she marvels as it melts, then hardens into a new shape. "My name is Oo-Dee," she announces, "and I was the first metallurgist."

Mona and Terry believe in submerging themselves into the far-flung characters they portray with hammy commitment, and this gives Celik and Scheie numerous opportunities to do the same but with a knowingness that eludes Mona and Terry. The set-up elicits big laughs, but their total investment in these characters is actually rather sweet.

As true-believer Mona and the waspishly cynical Terry increasingly bicker over the worth of their endeavors, Nachtrieb has sport not only at the specifics of their situation, but also at theater as a chosen profession in general. Theater reviews, acting awards, jealousy, and schadenfreude get targeted, but not without a nod to the often thankless nature of the theatrical calling.

You might not call "The Making of a Great Moment" a love letter to the theater, but as Mona says, "One man's diarrhea is a rose bush's lucky day."

 

"The Making of a Great Moment" will run through Aug. 26 at Z Below. Tickets are $25-$50, available at zspace.org.

 






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