A few weeks ago, I received a Facebook friend request from someone calling himself “UG Man.” Cryptic posts started appearing in my newsfeed within a few days. It took me some time to realize this was the beginning of UNDERGROUND, the latest entry in EgoPo Classic Theater’s season-long exploration of isolation.
Unapologetic political theater
Conceived by EgoPo artist-in-residence Damien J. Wallace and director Dane Eissler—and co-produced with Lawrence Theatre Company, of which Wallace is artistic director—UNDERGROUND takes Dostoyevsky as its model but tells a very contemporary Philadelphia story. There are references to COVID-19 and the summer of unrest sparked by police brutality toward Black people, and a major strand of plot hinges on the 1985 MOVE bombing that is still front and center in the minds of many Philadelphians. It’s a strong, unapologetic work of political theater, just as Notes from Underground, its nominal source, was rooted in the political life of St. Petersburg.
But the action and activism take the form of a personal reckoning. The Underground Man (a rich, multilayered performance from Wallace) has been a witness and occasional participant in history, on the right or wrong sides of some issues. We first encounter him living in what appears to be a self-imposed exile, talking to a webcam with vocal distortion, his face obscured by sunglasses and a mask. This is the first of many red herrings—our interlocuter, like Dostoyevsky’s, is both an antihero and an unreliable narrator.
Over the course of 70 tense minutes, we learn what drove the Underground Man into hiding—and why he feels the need to re-emerge after several decades on the lam. Wallace and Eissler create a slow burn, with a fair amount of misdirection and stretches that can seem occasionally frustrating. There’s a method to this, though: we can feel like the Underground Man is coming to some understanding of himself and his actions at the same time as we, the viewers, do. And we can store those assumptions away as we follow the story along, because they’ll gradually be proven right or wrong.
Tense and captivating
The physical production mirrors the unease and disquiet of the Underground Man’s mind. Taj Rauch’s editing creates tension in much the same way as Wallace’s performance—it leaves you asking whether a jump, glitch, or skip was intentional, and if so, what it could mean. Rauch and technical director Chris Sannino offer the frightening simulacrum of reality that comes from living and interacting with people exclusively through screens. Marie Laster designs a bunker that initially conforms to expectations of reclusiveness, but which gradually opens up to something beautiful and surprising.
Wallace, a skillful actor long seen on local stages, is equally riveting on camera. He understands the value of a close-up and when to pull away, and he shades his tremulous baritone voice to project anger, pity, disgust, hopelessness, and sorrow. The play’s climactic half-hour is a tour de force—a term I hate, but for which there really is no alternative—as Wallace pulls the audience deeper into the web of actions that led the Underground Man to flee society and live in a purgatory of his own making. In a small but pivotal role, about which little should be revealed, Niya Colbert is equally captivating.
There are moments in which the play’s polemical structure turns a bit too roughly didactic. There are other times when, despite the stated relation to events current and former, I wished Wallace and Eissler dug deeper in connecting the dots. But the strengths of UNDERGROUND outweigh any weaknesses—and in particular, the use of multiple media channels to build the work’s narrative is an ingenious way to engage with the hybridity of theater at this moment. As with Emily, the play-by-mail that launched EgoPo’s socially distanced season, creativity counts for a lot.
Underground Man’s return to society is fleeting. “Once I’m gone, I’m gone,” he reminded his audience on Facebook a few days ago. Don’t miss out.
Image description: A single empty chair, lit by a shaft of light from above, stands in what looks like an empty, dilapidated warehouse, with graffiti on the cement walls.
What, When, Where
UNDERGROUND. Conceived by Damien J. Wallace and Dane Eissler. Directed by Dane Eissler. EgoPo Classic Theater and Lawrence Theatre Company. Streaming through December 6, 2020. egopo.org.
UNDERGROUND is closed-captioned.