Brothers and sisters, before we begin our meditation on Gregory Hischak’s theatrical accomplishment, let us draw our context (as Hischak may have) from scripture: specifically, from Genesis 2: 26 and 3:19. “And God said, Let man … have dominion…over all the earth… And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof….” We have been battling over naming rights ever since.
To name something is to control it (or at least to control what it is called), which is why the right to be called a name of one’s own choosing – as Mohammed Ali memorably taught us forty years ago – is not just an aesthetic imperative. The exploration of the American West opened up naming opportunities unparalleled since the time of Genesis. And indeed, to view each of the seven sketches which make up the gallery that is Volcanic in Origin as a whole is to view a moving picture of naming, control, domination and destruction.
We begin with Meriwether Lewis (Ashley Ivey) and William Clark (David Winkler), adrift in the vastness of the Louisiana Purchase. Clark gets to do some naming (he’s partial to the “Clark Fork”) but the principal naming responsibilities fall upon the more grandiose Lewis. Though his choices are not more elegantly put than Clark’s (“Powder” and “Milk”, among others, suggest the privations the pair has suffered on their journey), it was he who was personally commissioned by President Jefferson, and so he has authority, if not good sense. But then Mr. Lewis does the one thing that no paramount captain, or explorer, can possibly do: he loses the map.
Thereafter, Hischak presents six vignettes about claiming dominion while losing the map. In the best of them, Winkler is Clark, a small-time hood holed up in a cheap Oregon motel with a cocktail waitress (Belen Pifel). As Clark dreams about naming the small dirt hill outside the motel (and eventually the entire state) after himself we seem to be in a low-rent romantic comedy. But wait until the whole map of the story rolls out. If your hand doesn’t reach for your throat at least once – well, you’re more laid-back than I am.
In another fine story, Ivey and Gwen Grastorf are a father and the unhappy daughter he is bringing back from rehab. He has decided to take a side road – a “scenic route” which allows us to see just how doomed their relationship is. But otherwise Hischak’s approach is fundamentally whimsical.
Sometimes this doesn’t work, as in an overlong sketch in which Pifel and Grastorf are rangers at an environmentally disastrous park. But a second playlet, which closes out the play, beautifully marries the story of a tragically clueless marriage and the tragically clueless effect our mapless, dominating ways have had on the environment. Ivey and Pifel are wonderful in this vignette, which climaxes with a terrific line that sums up the entire evening’s work. (I won’t tell you what it is).
The principal pleasure of Volcanic in Origin is watching the work of the four actors, none of whom is widely known in Washington. They should be, and I predict that they will be.
You should consider seeing them at the Source Festival, rather than waiting until they hit the big stage, where it will cost you big bucks. Pifel is particularly effective in this; she imbues her characters with a sort of hapless wisdom. They know what’s going on, but they can’t do anything about it. This may be Hischak’s point of view as well.
This play also marks the successful Washington-area debut of director Sonya Robbins. Although the Source gives no biographical information about its players, a Google™ search indicates that she is a Brooklyn choreographer. This production is beautifully choreographed, and in particular the space between vignettes, which could have been full of graceless and distracting stage business, becomes part of the art.
Full disclosure requires that I mention that Winkler has reviewed Fringe Festival productions for this publication in the past. This has not affected the objectivity of my review.
Volcanic in origin
By Gregory Hischak
Directed by Sonya Robbins
Produced as part of the Source Festival
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
One hour forty-five minutes, with one intermission