Acting absurd

Troy Richard is sick about Detroit theater. He says so while having a beer at the Cass Cafe.

At the table is John Jakary, with a similar malady. The cure they propose is reviving their "little theater that could," Zeitgeist, which closed down in 2004 after seven years and 35 productions.

In a press release, the two men write: "In the two years since closing, we have seen too many productions of subpar theater by people who barely seemed to be trying, and it is mostly in reaction to this mediocrity that Zeitgeist is reopening."

"We want to challenge the audience to think about what's going on onstage," Jakary says. Richard adds, "We present 'theater of the abuse of the audience,' challenging the audience to make them uncomfortable." He is only half-joking.

Jakary and Richard are partial to presenting expressionistic theater, particularly theater of the absurd, worlds of alienation as in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. For their reopening, they have chosen Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabel's The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria, and for September, they're promising The Proximity Plays, three one-acts by Richard. In 2007, a vicious and violent adaptation of Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare's most baroque plays, fleshes out the first season.

When asked about why they decided to close in the first place, Richard glances around the cafe as if there might be spies from the theater community. With some reluctance, he admits, "Thirty-five productions in seven years took its toll and there was one disaster."

About the show that moved them to close up shop, Jakary says, Hamlet Machine: Hamlet was the final blow. "We were ill-prepared — we dealt with demoralized actors a lot after rehearsal, a horrible production. We had to put the work into doing the set and lights and the extra responsibility to keep the actors from mutinying." In this case, an outside director was preparing the show.

"It was a dagger in my heart," Richard says. "I made a decision I wanted to take a break."

Bringing a show on is a grueling proposition: Once rehearsal begins, they spend hours working on productions after finishing their full-time day jobs. (Richard owns Detroit Legal Photocopying and Graphic Services and Jakary programs computers for Wayne State University's Center for Urban Studies.) Richard does sets, Jakary handles lights and sound, and they alternate the directorial chores. "There are 16 hours of rehearsal a week times eight weeks," Richard says.

"Every day after 5 p.m. and on the weekends," Jakary adds. Zeitgeist is essentially a two-man producing, designing, directing and publicizing team.

"I wasn't as unhappy and angry two years ago as I thought I was — or it wore off," says Richard with a bit of a smile creeping over his near deadpan face. Nonetheless, their seasons from now on will be, at most, three shows a year, when they used to do five.

Though the two of them seem to have a rare degree of unanimity, their backgrounds are divergent. Richard has a BFA in cinematography from Central Michigan University, did some theater in Royal Oak, then, after returning to Detroit following two years in San Francisco, he started his legal copying service. Zeitgeist Theatre, which is one part of a larger building owned by Richard (the other half is a bar and art gallery), lost $20,000 each season; that came out of Richard's company.

Jakary, on the other hand, says about his background: "I got sucked into theater at Cass Tech because of a cute girl." He studied theater and English lit at Michigan State University and earned a teaching certificate. After graduating, Jakary worked with Ron Allen on his series Horizon in Poetry, then joined Richard at Zeitgeist, working on lighting and sound.

"John and I have some of the same philosophies about theater," Richard says. "Both of us enjoy interesting, abstract theater. I write and John edits." For The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria, Richards is producing and Jakary is directing.

Richard says, "I came into rehearsal and there was sand flying all over the place. I told John, 'We need to teach actors how to walk on sand.'" Richard, the mastermind behind some of the theater's most unusual and impressive sets, is also insistent that Zeitgeist constructs "real sets, not just a bunch of square boxes and mime exercises meant to represent 'a bed' or 'a car.'" Consequently, the actors in The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria walk in four inches of sand spread over 8 feet by 52 feet of stage space. There are palm trees, a running waterfall and fountain, and a colorful backdrop painted by well-known Detroit artist Vito Valdez.

Arrabel's absurdist farce, Jakary says, "is about the relationship between two people who are isolated on a desert island. They develop new, alternative relationships, such as master and slave, teacher and pupil, mother and child, lover and beloved." Walking into the theater on opening night, the vista is of a narrow area covered in sand, slightly dampened so that it doesn't enter the audience's seating area. The set is real enough: foliage, a grass-and-wood hut with a working door and a backdrop of ocean and sky.

Onstage is a lone man; offstage, a plane crashes with a huge explosion and the man we come to know as the Emperor of Assyria arrives in ripped clothing, wearing one shoe and carrying a battered suitcase. For the next two hours the lonely native, renamed "Architect," and the sophisticated survivor test each other to the limits of emotional and psychological endurance. Audiences get a laugh from such odd jokes as deciding which one of them is to be crucified that day: "We drew by lot to see who would atone for humanity" whines the aggrieved emperor when the architect assumes the pose. Another funny moment occurs when the architect learns to pronounce a new word: "Es-ca-la-tor." (Not exactly the mot juste for a desert island.)

The absurdists — including European playwrights Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and the American Edward Albee — treat life as a series of blunders in the darkness. In this play, the emperor is eventually put on trial for the murder of his mother while wearing a series of fabulous masks (in this case, designed by local artist Heather White). Despite the incongruity and despair leading into an abyss of abnormality, the play has symmetry, ending exactly the way it began, with an offstage crash. The remaining survivor will re-enact the story after the lights go down.

Two brave actors, Joel Mitchell and Charles Reynolds, respectively play the emperor and the architect of the title. Undaunted by the play's physical demands, they perform with grace under fire, speaking in accents and gesticulating wildly with a naturalness and ease that comes with great concentration and exacting rehearsal. Most of the time, one or the other or both are nude but for discreet coverings, yet they seem to have the aplomb of men who are invisible but to one another.

Jakary has directed this production with a sure touch. He knows just how far to take a scene in which the two men simulate sex; helping the actors imitate women is one hallmark of a mature stage director, and Jakary is wise beyond his years.

For those who have been waiting two years for Zeitgeist to come back, the wait is worth it. For those new to the venue and theater of the absurd, this is the only place around here offering an authentic experience. Welcome back, guys.


The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria is at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 4 p.m. on Sundays through April 29, at Zeitgeist Performance Space, 2661 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-965-9192, Tickets are $10-$20. While you're there, check out Jim Puntigam's solo art show Consulting Demons.

Michael H. Margolin writes about the performing arts for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]