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Got dreams of escaping? Then follow the Resident Ensemble Players (the University of Delaware’s professional troupe) into the woods. But simplifying might not be so simple, as playwright Michael Gotch shows in Minor Fantastical Kingdoms. Director Mark Lamos has mounted an intricate, interesting production about running from reality while running straight into it.
Gotch sets his action on the Fourth of July, exploring American mores via an erupting family gathering. What begins as a new-home celebration quickly devolves into serious territory larded with near-farcical comedy. Or is it a comedy laced with passionate polemics?
Having had their fill of the plugged-in life, an attractive young couple builds an off-the-grid tiny house in a towering forest. Lumbersexual architect Nick (Denver Milord) is “a bearded young urban man cultivating the appearance of a rugged outdoor lifestyle.” (That’s from the OED.) His wife Sam (Sara Bues) is a former social-media whiz who has had to escape from her slick and overwhelming world.
At curtain rise — or sunrise, in designer Pat Collins’s lighting — they’re preparing to welcome two guests: Sam’s high-strung mother Billie (the perfectly calibrated Elizabeth Heflin, sporting eggshell-thin armor) and her father’s brother Larry (Lee E. Ernst, a high-school biology teacher thrilled to be out in the woods). This will be the couple’s (are they a couple?) first visit to Nick and Sam’s just-completed tiny house.
Already anxious, Sam gets an unwelcome surprise — Nick has invited across-the-forest neighbors, former hippies Win (a genial, gentle Stephen Pelinski) and Carol (Kathleen Pirkl Tague in full earth-mother mode). The gathering is periodically interrupted by Bernard (Hassan El-Amin), garbedin black, toting regalia, and bringing a dystopian dimension to the domesticity.
Gotch surrounds his four “normal” characters with these three quirky neighbors, adding zesty seasoning to the family dynamics. He then delivers his menu of topical issues: the tiny-house craze, aging boomers, ecology, military doomsayers, politics, pregnancy, and fiscal scandal.
Zippy, breezy comedy dominates the first half, though it’s full of conflicts that inevitably come to a head. Gotch is carefully oblique about political references, but the effort to ascertain them sometimes distracts from following his fast-moving exposition. On opening night, several plot reveals were nearly lost in the breakneck pacing, and polemics tend to take over after intermission, skewing the delicate balance.
But Gotch — himself a gifted actor — has written rich roles, and his colleagues return the favor with company-wide excellence. Survivalist Bernard and Renaissance Faire devotees Carol and Win (speaking in Shakespearean poetry and Elvish) could be caricatures, but here they become unlikely emotional centers.
Gotch clearly has an actor’s joy in using quotes and literary references. This is the work of an adept and gifted intellect, no surprise to REP regulars who have followed his onstage work. But Minor Fantastical Kingdoms is more than an intellectual showcase.
When the set completes the show
And for a new work, there is no overstating the value of surrounding the playwright with masters of theatrical craft. This is especially clear in Lamos’s exceptionally skillful direction — fast-moving, focused, and never falling on the sentimental third rail — and Hugh Landwehr’s brilliant scenic design
Landwehr’s set is a textbook study in how a great designer can expand a play’s message. The tiny house — a self-conscious ecological interloper — crouches amid towering trees and ancient rocks that will remain eons after the insignificant structure and its occupants are gone. The sleek little box is sited at an almost indiscernible off-angle that subtly reinforces both its intrusion and its temporality. And the house has every self-conscious multiuse detail exactly right, even to the required small-scale LG refrigerator.
Gotch’s couple begins by seeking refuge from the structures and strictures of fast-paced urban life in a seeming utopia, only to find themselves equally bound by a new set of expectations and rules. You may think you can’t take it with you, but this playwright shows that your baggage trails along no matter how far away you go.
What, When, Where
Minor Fantastical Kingdoms. By Michael Gotch, Mark Lamos directed. Through February 10, 2019, at the Roselle Center for the Arts at the University of Delaware, 110 Orchard Road, Newark, DE. (302) 831-2204 or rep.udel.edu.
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