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Rage of the Ages


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Alternative Productions

at Chicago Dramatists Workshop

Is humanity good or evil? Playwright William Rosen, who studied philosophy at Northwestern, puts his training to the test in his latest work, Rage of the Ages. Rosen explores this unfathomable question, which has spawned treatises, in a myriad of ways--so many, in fact, that it's impossible to grasp any of them. Rosen further bewilders the viewer by layering on a tale of turmoil between father and son. Or maybe it's the mythical that's layered over the familial. In either case, Rosen has smashed two wildly disparate themes into one play, and doesn't bring either one to a satisfying conclusion.

Rage of the Ages is pseudo science fiction, populated by mortals and superior Others. The mortals are at varying stages of knowledge about the existence of the Others, but during the course of the play all are introduced to them.

It is never made quite clear who or what these Others are, but the ones we meet are named Gaius and Chamile, and their names and abilities suggest godlike stature. But Chamile scoffs at the idea that Gaius is a god (though Gaius makes it clear that he's not a man). And Chamile makes it equally clear that she is human, though somehow she has become--for now at least--immortal. Still, their names indicate that they're of the earth. Gaea was the Greek earth goddess, and Chamile comes from the Greek root chamai, meaning "on the ground"--though "Gaius" could also refer to the Roman jurist, since the character is constantly passing judgment, and "Chamile" could refer to a chameleonlike habit of changing her past identities. Only one thing is completely clear: though Gaius is the stronger, they both have extraordinary powers.

And they are not alone, it seems. There are more Others in our world (though we don't meet them), and each is fighting to prove his or her own ideas about the true nature of mankind. It is a war between the primitive and the futuristic, primal instinct and civilization, the collective unconscious and individual knowledge. In essence, they're battling over the soul of mankind.

Sound familiar? Maybe from your early religious training? But the Book of Job, for instance, allows us to witness the struggle between God and Lucifer. Rage of the Ages lets us see from only one vantage point.

Gaius claims to be looking for the good, humans who have transcended their instinctual aggression and are on the path to his brand of righteousness (he himself appears to be arrogant, cruel, and deceitful, but God's ways are not man's ways, they say). He gathers these good souls through cryptic classified advertisements, and shares his views of the world in a lecture series. Gaius keeps track of his judgment of souls in a book, which is part of the office in which Chamile is an administrative assistant and loving (sort of) companion. The father/son story is one of his cases, and it is at this point that Rosen attempts to join his mythical tale to a familiar one about separation and reconciliation.

The people in this case have no names. They are only the father, the son, and the woman (the son's girlfriend). The father is afflicted with an odd paralysis (which Gaius caused, we find out, as a punishment). Though doctors can find nothing wrong, the father can't feel anything anywhere in his entire body, and is thus bedridden. He sends his son in search of Gaius to plead his case for him, though he tells him nothing about the incident that angered Gaius, nor even about Gaius himself. What he does tell his son sounds a great deal like schizophrenic delusions, complete with conspiracy-theory rhetoric in the Thomas Pynchon vein.

The dutiful son searches the classified ads with his girlfriend, looking for the strange coded messages his father has instructed him to find. Sure enough, he uncovers Gaius. And this is the point at which Rage of the Ages begins to spin out of control. The son starts to hate his father, and all kinds of stories, including flashbacks of the son's childhood, are thrown together helter-skelter. Rage of the Ages turns into what should be called Sins of the Father, and where this leaves Gaius is anyone's guess. Like I said, there's no real conclusion to either story.

The script is so flawed it's hard to know where to begin. None of the characters is sympathetic--except for the son's girlfriend, and her only role seems to be as a catalyst for the son's blossoming hatefulness. And there are so many unanswered questions. Where are Gaius's enemies, and what are they doing? Whatever happened to the son's mother, a primary player in his father's earlier transgression? Why does the son turn on his father so quickly? What is Gaius really up to? Why does he care about these people? Why does Chamile stay when she seems to dislike Gaius so much? Why is Gaius so upset by the survival instinct? The list goes on and on. But the main question that must be asked is: Why did Rosen write this play? What is his point?

Alternative Productions gives the confusing Rage of the Ages magnificent technical support, among the most accomplished I've seen in a small theater. Daniel Crump's gorgeous multileveled set evokes both secular grandeur and space-age mystery. The high, arched, steely columns that surround the set provide majesty, the illusion of vastness. A simple marbled slab in the center of the lower level serves various practical purposes while representing a central image--a sacrificial altar. Olivier Ilisca's lighting complements the set: eerie colored lights shoot up amid the columns. The lighting provides precise, smooth transitions from one scene to another, and Ilisca manages to create a remarkable number of distinct locations and moods within this small area. In his sound design and original compositions Andrew Rosen combines the mystical and primitive with the futuristic, layering wind pipes and drums over high-tech spaceship noises and multilingual numerology sequences. His twisted and broken versions of the lullaby "Hush, Little Baby" before many flashback scenes are chilling. Only Dena Isaacson's costumes fall short. The mortals are wearing drab, undefined outfits that suggest nothing about their characters. With the immortals, Isaacson seems to aim for an Eastern look. Gaius is in red velvety Turkish-style pants, and Chamile wears an odd genielike waistband. But these costumes ultimately make no sense, layered as they are with ultranormal vests, sweaters, jackets, and so on.

The acting is solid. There are no flashy performers, but all are extremely competent. The best work comes in the smallest role--Timothy, one of Gaius's disciples. John Cohen plays a stereotypical conspiracy theorist. He is always nervous, manically on the lookout for enemies. Cohen's sharp, tense movements comically evoke the desperation of a man in need of a cause, and maybe some medication.

Director Drew Martin's staging is clean and precise and mostly on target. He does, however, waste a marvelous opportunity to use that marble slab in the play's climactic scene.

Yet all of the actors' and technicians' efforts cannot surmount the many difficulties of Rosen's script. It's too bad, because some of it is intriguing--I'd like to see that play about the war over humanity's soul.

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