Writers have been exploring the creative process for almost the entire history of the medium, so when a playwright sits down to write about how writers write, it can be difficult to find something new and interesting to say. With her latest play, The Antipodes, Pulitzer-Prize winner Annie Baker, acclaimed creator of hits like Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens and The Flick, takes a look at not only writing, but storytelling itself, and the ways in which time has changed, and held fast, to the art form. Director Ken Webster has called in some of the best talents in town to bring this story to life, including Hyde Park mainstays, on-the-rise stars, and some gifted younger talents, all coming together to create an ensemble of witty wordsmiths.
As Antipodes begin, one can be forgiven for wondering if they’ve just stumbled in on the filming of the newest HBO pilot. The joke-heavy writers room seems torn from a kind of prestige comedy format that’s grown somewhat familiar, though it’s always brimming with Baker’s signature spark. As the play goes on, however, its shadowy corners begin to reveal themselves, as the struggle of these nine writer to create the great new idea take on more bizarre, even foreboding forms. Indeed, the play takes turns into the surreal that would be more at home in a Will Eno play, but what Baker brings is a groundedness that always makes the characters feel alive and real, even as they’re barking out made up words or telling ghastly fairy tales. While the play takes deep dives into the some dark, even cultish landscapes, most of characters never lose their authenticity, which is a testament not only to Baker’s talents, but also to the adept actors that inhabit this play.
Taking on a cast this large can be daunting task. Though there have been some major hits in the past, such as Hyde Park’s own award-winning The Wolves or Capital T’s much-heralded Spirits to Enforce, in many cases such productions can lead to either an unbalanced slog or a confused mess. Luckily, Ken Webster and company carry “Antipodes” with a careful touch, making sure each of the characters is compelling, without any taking too much attention away from the others. It certainly helps that the group has such winning chemistry, working together as if they had known each other forever. Much credit must indeed go the performers, who to a person create credible personas, even as their actions get more outrageous as the play progresses.
With a cast this large, full of actors this talented, its difficult to pick outstanding performers, as a large part of of the fun of The Antipodes is how the actors interact. Still, one can’t deny that Dave Yakubik, with his deep, sonorous, yet joyful voice and sad eyes was a perfect fit for the shy, but sweet Danny M2, and one hopes we see him back on stage sooner rather than later. One also would be remiss if they did not mention Shanon Weaver, the only man to have auditioned for BOTH extant productions of the play, who utilizes his charisma and swagger to breathe no small amount of hilarious bluster to the role. Lowell Bartholemee proves that there are few things in theatre he is not good at, coming off a Austin Critics’ Table wins for best sound design and digital design, and stealing every scene he’s in as the cocksure, witty Danny M1. Maria Latiolais, fresh off an impressive performances in Hyde Park’s The Wolves, also shows herself to be a star on the rise, with a peppy and bright performance, that perhaps belies something darker as the play progresses. Another one to watch is Saurabh Pradhan, whose comedic timing is undeniable, bringing some of the biggest laughs of the piece, who also is able to carry one of the play’s more bizarre stretches of writing with gusto.
Annie Baker and Hyde Park Theatre have always been a marriage made in heaven, and The Antipodes certainly continues to prove this. Ken Webster is able to capture the spirit and rhythm of Baker’s language, while taking some of the wilder moments and expanding them to create something truly jaw-dropping. It’s a play that’s incredibly demanding of its actors, going places where few actors are brave enough to go (there’s one monologue given by Lowell Bartholemee that’s absolute stomach-turning), showing the cast to be full of professional, polished performers. The play isn’t full of pounding action or a single gripping narrative, but the relatable characters and bizarre escalation make for intriguing, if a tad intellectual, experience, that patient viewers will find quite enrapturing.
Antipodes is playing at Hyde Park Theatre through August 4th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit http://www.hydeparktheatre.org.
Photo courtesy of Bret Brookshire.