They call it synchronicity when similar events coincide.
I had no idea what the word “Annapurna” meant—and yet I stumbled across its name and discovered its meaning just a couple of weeks before seeing the play of that title at Coachella Valley Repertory. Synchronicity! Turns out Annapurna is the Nepalese name of one of the 14 “over 8,000 meter high” mountains in the world—and it is listed as the deadliest of them all: One out of every three climbers of this rock has been killed.
At CV Rep, the play’s director and the company’s founder and artistic director, Ron Celona, chose Sharr White’s Annapurna to start the company’s sixth season—and congratulations on succeeding in a business where so many theaters fail.
However, this show is not about mountain-climbing. It’s about relationships—which can certainly be as dangerous, given the mortality rate of marriages these days. Ulysses and his wife Emma split up about 20 years ago, but now she’s tracked him down … to the icky Colorado trailer park where he resides. Why? CV Rep’s theme for this season is “Love, Marriage and Life-Changing Events,” and this two-actor play provides much food for thought.
The play stars Anna Nicholas as Emma and Eric Charles Jorgenson as Ulysses. Both actors boast impressive resumes, but the crucial factor in casting such a play has to be the chemistry between them. Nothing else—not the writing, the directing nor the technical support—will matter unless the actors can make believable their situation. You can put together two individually successful and skilled actors, yet still the show is compromised if there’s a lack of chemistry.
Technically, the play is fantastic. Let’s take a moment to recognize the work of Jimmy Cuomo as the set designer, Moira Wilke Whitaker as stage manager and lighting designer, Doug Morris as production manager and associate designer, Karen Goodwin as assistant stage manager and sound tech, Aalsa Lee as costume designer, Cricket S. Myers as sound designer, and Lynda Shaeps as hair and makeup designer.
Author Sharr White’s bio offers a big list of accomplishments and a rather prolific list of plays. Here, he combines comedy with drama. (They’re calling it “dramedy,” but I’m not totally sure that’s a real word yet.) We have to tack a language warning on to this work, which didn’t bother me until we realized that there were children in the audience on opening night. You might want to think twice before bringing them to this show. The laugh lines may not be everyone’s cup of, um, chai.
Should I also mention the partial nudity? Should I brace you for The World’s Most Annoying Dog barking nonstop in the background? If you’ve ever lived in a neighborhood with one of those, you will find yourself gritting your molars over the backstage woofing. Shall I warn your delicate sensibilities about the squalor in which we find Ulysses living? What about his being a published author, yet speaking with the most dreadful grammar? Well, consider yourself advised, and forge ahead if you will.
The dark quality of this show completely overshadows any laughs it might initially provide. As Ulysses and Emma finally lock horns over their failed marriage, the inevitable differences in how any situation is viewed by each party emerges: He says, she says. Memories fade, change, distort ... or do they? What other influences come into play? What about the influence of drinking? Health issues? Other people? What gets forgotten? Has time caused changes in how we see, or saw, life? How has the very world changed, and has the new technology affected memories of the past?
They say that when two people first meet, there is a wealth of information exchanged psychically, without a word. The bottom line is whether the relationship will or won’t continue past “hello.” We’ve all met people to whom we are immediately attracted, as well as people whom we instantly dislike—with nothing other than a gut feeling to explain it. Well, Ulysses and Emma met and were attracted and began a relationship and married, and now they haven’t spoken for 20 years when she shows up at the door of his rickety rural trailer. Thus, the actors now face a 90-minute (with no intermission) challenge to explain their situation to us. The very lines and cues of the script had to be daunting to learn, in a two-person show that takes place in one cramped space. It’s a feat of memorization by Nicholas and Jorgenson, and both rise to the occasion. Both characters go through a variety of emotion and mood changes in their time together. Though every actor deep down wants to be liked by the audience, these characters are essentially unsympathetic ones.
How you react to their reunion will obviously depend on, well, you, and what you bring to the play. Will you be moved? Will you believe it? Will you see chemistry between them? Will you laugh, feel tears, gasp, sprout goose bumps? I was not feeling much chemistry between Nicholas and Jorgenson on opening night. However, every theater-goer experiences his or her own responses to a play, and that is the special value of live theater.
A lot of hard work is evident in Annapurna—fortunately, though, not quite as much as climbing a real mountain.
Annapurna will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 20, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.