Offhand, I can think of no theatrical climax this year that has been simpler, sweeter, or more subtly moving than the one in Black Hawk College's Going Underground. All it consists of is actress Miranda Lipes standing center-stage, offering a beatific, tranquil smile while Judy Garland sings "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," yet the impact of the moment is stronger than you might be prepared for.
With Garland's heavenly vocals providing comfort and even benediction for Lipes' character - and all of the characters - this finale could easily have turned cliché. Yet Lipes, portraying an Irish senior citizen traveling on London's subway system, delivers a performance of such ease and truth that the tableau transcends corniness; she smiles, and you instinctively smile back. Like much of Going Underground, it's a triumph of understatement, and the perfect end to this production of Christopher Morgan's searching and thoughtful tragicomedy. Or rather, it would be if it actually were the production's end.
But more on that later. Morgan's hour-long one-act finds seven dissimilar types sharing the same train car but not much else, as the tube's passengers actually never speak to one another. The audience, though, becomes privy to their histories and personalities, and Morgan has cleverly fashioned the piece so this conceit doesn't feel static. Every character tells, in effect, one story, but the playwright breaks up the monologues so we only hear bits and pieces of one before another voice takes over, picking up his or her own reminiscence where it left off; Going Underground is structured as a series of monologues that offers the illusion of a continuous dialogue, lending the work an unexpectedly graceful narrative flow.
Morgan also demonstrates a gift for having characters reveal themselves without meaning to - Neil Friberg's office worker, for instance, considers himself a literate man of the people when he is, in truth, a fatuous dork - and, happily, the playwright manages to make these revelations both insightful and funny. We laugh at the characters' self-deceptions because they're really no different from our own. We occasionally shudder at them, too, for the same reason.
Going Underground is a wonderfully human work, yet it's delicate enough that too heavy a hand could crush it. Under the direction of Dan Haughey, though, Black Hawk's ensemble never pushes the show's themes or underlines the subtext; they perform with honest, unfussy naturalism, allowing us to discover their characters' humor and pathos for ourselves.
Guillermo Jiménez Almanza, whose José is waging a battle with the complexities of the English language, delivers his befuddled pronouncements with big-hearted (and hilarious) openness, and as the habitually unemployed Tina, Dana Jarrard is a radiant presence whose dazzling smile helps mask her character's deep-rooted insecurity. Joshua Kahn's Australian Internet addict, Sebastian, grows steadily creepier as Going Underground progresses, yet the actor doesn't overplay his hand; Kahn shrewdly lets his character's intensity sneak up on you.
Nina Prescott's tremulousness is just right for Faith, who proves less the shrinking violet she initially seems, while Friberg's Simon is a hugely funny comic creation who never feels less than real. And Damian Cassini's businessman, George, is a figure of utter confidence, and reveals the actor to be quite the chameleon; the sincere and reserved Cassini is unrecognizable from the hysterically blotto Roy he played in last season's Lone Star.
He'd be even more effective if his most telling monologue weren't interrupted by his leaving the confines of the tube and taking a needless walk through the auditorium, and unfortunately, George isn't the only one hindered by extraneous movement. At random moments, Haughey has characters leave the main playing area and converse with us from the far right and left of the stage, and it's a jarring switch; not only is there no good reason for these overtly "theatrical" flourishes (aside from altering the stage picture), but it keeps us from also focusing on the other tube denizens, whose expressions and personal business - always performed in character - are nearly as entertaining as their speeches.
This, however, isn't as bothersome as the production's "living-theatre epilogue" that follows Lipes' tableau, in which the characters engage the audience in debates on several hot-topic issues (at Thursday's preview, they included government officials and Internet security), and which goes against the entire grain of what Going Underground is about: our mutual unwillingness to engage in meaningful conversation. I'm hoping this pseudo-sequel worked better with subsequent, larger audiences than it did with our group of some two dozen, but I felt an awkward unease about its execution - neither cast nor audience seemed quite sure of what was expected of them - and sadly, it deprived the actors of an immediate curtain call, which was delayed for 20 minutes of uncomfortable improvisation.
In my head, though, the true ending came with Garland and that sublime smile from Lipes' Dottie, whose good-natured cheer, all throughout, was touched with extraordinarily poised melancholy. Going Underground, in Black Hawk's production, may last longer than it needs to, but it offers a wonderfully satisfying ride.
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