Washingtonpost
2014-10-28 15:20:43

‘Rage’ from Ambassador Theater elicits interesting questions but feels shallow

Think carefully before festooning your office with idealistic posters. The inspiring decor may come back to haunt you.

Such is the experience of Laura, the complacent school guidance counselor who’s one of two characters in Michele Riml’s “Rage,” now on view in a stiffly acted production from the Ambassador Theater. An intelligent but schematic play-of-ideas, whose strength lies in putting feel-good platitudes through a philosophical shredder, “Rage” chronicles Laura’s white-knuckle encounter with Raymond, a menacing teenager who objects to the counselor’s self-satisfied pacifism. When Laura seems disinclined to die for the values celebrated in her office’s Gandhi signage, Raymond taunts her. “You could have a poster with a quote on it!” he says, mockingly.

Such ironies click neatly into place in the engineered conceptual jousting that drives “Rage,” directed here by Joe Banno. (The production is billed as a U.S. premiere.) With its school setting and portrait of the brooding, violence-prone Raymond (he prefers to go by his nickname, “Rage”), the play necessarily calls to mind the mass shootings that have repeatedly erupted on modern American campuses. But Riml has broader interests, as well. How eager are we to shrink from hard questions about the limits of nonviolence? How willing are we to accept restrictions on freedom of thought and speech? What are the boundaries of our empathy and our courage?

These questions come to haunt the basement office where Laura (Ariana Almajan) presides over her counseling sessions. (Jonathan Rushbrook devised the set, which is aptly drab, bar the aforementioned Gandhi sign and a poster emblazoned with the maxim “Peace is the Way.”) Laura has been ordered to talk to the alienated Raymond (Marlowe Vilchez), who has spooked school authorities, particularly with a history-class presentation that seemed to glorify, and even echo, Hitler. Raymond, who turns out to be unexpectedly brainy, with a gift for quoting the likes of philosopher Herbert Spencer, maintains that he was trying to make an academic point about Hitler’s public relations skills. Unfortunately, the peace-and-yoga-endorsing Laura, who is rushing to make a performance of her favorite musical, “Les Misérables” (irony alert!), doesn’t really want to listen. At least, she doesn’t until Raymond breaks counseling-session rules, turning the tête-à-tête into an intellectual dual-to-the-death.

Vilchez’s delivery and stage manner can be stilted, and he doesn’t find much nuance in his character; if this Raymond isn’t in glowering-hangdog mode, he’s usually shouting — no unexpected line readings here. Almajan seems ill at ease in the play’s opening section, which is dutifully expository, but her character becomes more alive, assured and in-the-moment as the play progresses. In a piquant moment near the end, Laura leans back in a chair, smoking, and her face expresses a mixture of despair, weariness and hard-won understanding. (Sigridur Johannesdottir devised the personality-appropriate costumes, including Laura’s pink trench coat, which seems to suit the character’s smug self-absorption.)

“Rage” shares a number of concerns with Johnna Adams’s 2012 “Gidion’s Knot” — another taut, concept-rich two-hander set in an angst-burdened school room. Adams’s play fuses ideas with solid and even surprising characterizations. By contrast, Riml hasn’t fleshed Laura and Raymond out too much beyond their situations and worldviews. As a result, “Rage” sometimes feels like a thought experiment shoehorned into the limelight.

Wren is a freelance writer.

Rage

by Michele Riml. Directed by Joe Banno; produced by Hanna Bondarewska for Ambassador Theater; lighting, Jonathan Rushbrook; fight choreography, Cliff Williams III; sound design, George Gordon. About 90 minutes. Tickets: $8-40. Through Nov. 16 at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G Street NW, Washington. Visit www.aticc.org.

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