The Root of All Knowledge is a beautifully violent production of a dense, high-minded play. A Man and a Woman fall in love and explore what it means to be alone or connected. Is true connection possible between separate entities?
The story is new, but familiar. A gray-clad ensemble of cosmic indifference percusses and exhales. Out of the swirls of nothing come something: a celestial Adam-and-Eve story, perhaps the original sentient Man and Woman. The story arc follows a Man from isolation, to love, and back to isolation.
In infancy, Man’s mother takes her own suffering and loss of self out on her son. This pain is the beginning of his self-actualization. He enters the adult world, which is a jumble of people screaming “acknowledge my existence!” Man is special in this sea of despair, because he focuses his energy outwards. This external focus brings him to Woman, who is fascinated by this “cute,” earnest creature. They form a bond, argue about whether love is a fact or an action, and as their opposing views solidify, separate from each other. Their potential goes unfulfilled, and without hope of connection, they melt back into nothingness.
The characters are mythical and timeless, aside from their casual mentions of the American military-industrial complex. The language in the play vacillates between poeticism and vulgarity.
Director Justin J. Bell’s visual storytelling is enthralling. Bell, a veteran of movement-based Synetic Theater, choreographs striking blocking for the ensemble of focused actors. Emotions are externalized through exhilarative stomps, jolts, and undulations. Violence has a puppet-master quality, without contact between actors. This smart choice lets the audience focus on the story and implications of the violence, without worrying about actor safety (as is sometimes the case with fight choreography at Fringe).
The cast is of one mind as they voraciously dive into tricky material. The ensemble glides through complex movement and text with conviction. They memorize huge swaths of lines that are not in pedestrian language, or even metered verse.
The Root of Knowledge
Written by Gabriel S. Hudson
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Mary Elise Cecere and Lisa Galperin walk a difficult line as Mother and Baby. Their scene is a battle of selfish needs, yet each inspires audience empathy as they hurl poisonous words at each other. As Woman and Man, Morgan H. Miller and Calil Davis deliver their abstracted lines with specificity and ease. Miller plays her scholarly character composed and condescending. Davis plays his young ideologue grasping and buoyant.
Gabriel Hudson’s script is more philosophy textbook than play. Which is not to say it isn’t fascinating and engaging. But there are an awful lot of philosophical musings packed into 65 minutes. The actors plow through the elevated language at breakneck speed, which leaves little time for ideas to breathe. Much of the jargon used was unfamiliar to me, and I had to process double time to keep up. At times, I felt the need to pause the performance, run off to get a graduate degree in Philosophy, come back and tell the performers to continue. When I did catch a snippet and turn it over in my mind, the arguments about the nature of existence were fascinating and important.
The designers are also to thank for the poetic wonder onstage. Sharisse Taylor’s costumes could well be from a modern dance piece. Actors are clad in flowing tunics and tight leggings in shades of gray. The ensemble wears masks that might have been stolen from Batman Villian Bane, which made them a faceless force of oppression. Man and Woman get white tops to signify their divine potential. Lighting designer Nora Zich took us from ignorant darkness, into the light of knowledge, and back again. Blue and yellow light showed the diverging philosophies of Man and Woman. Music (not attributed in the program) enhanced the performance without distracting from it.
This compact show tackles sprawling concepts without being grandiose or condescending. There is a lot to chew on, but if you can swallow it, you’ll leave full of big ideas. If you are a cosmic crumb, will you still try to steer your fate?
The Root of All Knowledge by Gabriel S. Hudson . Directed by Justin J. Bell . Cast: Mary Elise Cecere, Calil Davis, Lisa Galperin, Heather Gibson, Marley Kabin, Arami McCloskey, Morgan H. Miller, Mackenzie Williams . Designer: Sharisse Taylor . Lighting Designer: Nora Zich . Production Assistant: Sai Pethe . Produced by Atramental Arts . Reviewed by Ruthie Rado.