- Greggory Moore
[Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the extension of the rundates for Darkside at Garage Theatre.]
By Greggory Moore, Curtain Call Columnist
Emily has a problem. She’s at university studying a bit of philosophy, and she’s increasingly troubled by her investigations into the status of the Good, particularly as highlighted in thought experiments proffered by Professor Baggott. Is it Good, for example, to divert a runaway train full of passengers from plunging off a cliff if by doing so you kill an innocent boy playing on the tracks?
It’s a consideration that transports Emily from lecture hall to the land of thought experiments, where she meets up with that now-deceased boy. They are soon joined by the superhero (or should we say: Übermensch?) Ethics Man—Baggott behind the mask—who floats to earth after taking his doomed plane’s sole parachute (the premise of another well known hypothetical), leaving his fellow passengers, a banker and a politician, to go down with the airship. “I was a utilitarian consequentialist,” Baggott explains, “but I’ve been forced to reexamine some deeply held convictions. […] Ethics Man is [now] a Nietzschean egoist. […] The rules are made by whoever has the will to make them.”
We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore, and for someone in search of the Good (Nietzsche wasn’t), such ratiocination doesn’t necessarily satisfy, so Emily treks ever deeper into her psychic wilderness, losing touch with the real world as she fantasizes of how she might address humanity on the subject:
They know the world is fucked if something isn’t done. They know what has to be done. They don’t understand why nobody is really doing it. The system is locked somehow, they don’t know why. They’re looking up at me. Can Emily McCoy save the world? I explain it to them as if I’m talking to children. When I’m done [… t]hey sit there, stunned. But next day fucked-upness is on the turn, like floodwater starting to go down. Glaciers, rain forests, pollution, destruction, starvation…
“What do you say to them?” the boy asks. “That’s the part I’m still working on,” she says. It’s intractable work, though, and it’s driving her mad.
Darkside is Tom Stoppard’s always clever, often brilliant exploration of how searching for the Good in a world without a reliable roadmap might lead one to madness. And while his words are wonderful in their own right, part of his masterstroke is incorporating The Dark Side of the Moon into the text. More than mere mood-setting, the lyrics and even sound effects of Pink Floyd’s timeless classic are themselves parts of the story, voices in Emily’s head. Breathe, breathe in the air / Don’t be afraid to care / Leave but don’t leave me / Look around, choose your own ground.
When Emily gets the chance to live out her fantasy—within her fantasy, at least—by addressing that mass of lost souls searching for the Good, from on high she holds forth passionately, mouthing words that we hear as the wordless wailing of “Great Gig in the Sky”, a gorgeous human voice soaring to the heavens, before finally melting into Emily’s articulated plea:
The earth is a common. You can’t save it for yourself, but you can save it for others, and the others will save it for you. The other is us, and we are the other. We are of a kind. We are natural born to kindness, which means to act as our kind, as kin to kin, as kindred, which is to act kindly. What is the Good? It is nothing but a contest of kindness. To be unkind is against nature [… W]hen we live for trickery and gain, we turn against nature, and nature will turn against us.
The flaws in this production are mostly audiovisual. Director Eric Hamme and crew aren’t quite able to stitch together script and sound seamlessly. The music is her madness (Dark Side of the Moon is, after all, about losing one’s mind from trying to move through our morally opaque world), and we should be overcome by it with her. To this end the lighting and visual effects ought to be sharp enough to focus our attention where it needs to be in a given moment—on an actor’s face or voice, on Roger Waters’s lyrics, in a haze of atmosphere; but they almost always feel generic, like an iTunes visualizer setting with elements that would be the same no matter what music was playing. Too much of the time the stage feels naked and static.
The blocking is also less than ideal, with the downstage action playing effectively only to a small part of the house. If the stage were a baseball diamond, home plate would be the downstage extreme the audience would be sitting along the first- and third-base lines. Show up early and position yourself as close to home as possible.
Part of the reason to sit there is to fully enjoy the performances. Despite the greatness of the text, Darkside would die a hard death without an actor who can humanize Emily—she’s a person in pain, nothing hypothetical about it—and Maribella Magaña makes her real. Paul Knox also does a good job making Baggott not just Ethics Man (a bit campy by design) but also a real man increasingly troubled by the conundrums he’s been teaching all these years, particularly when he sees what they’re doing to his favorite pupil. The standout supporting role is Matthew Anderson as the Witch Finder, bringing a menace that augments the visceral range of the onstage action. Robert Young offers a few quietly charming moments as the decedent of another famous thought experiment. On opening night all of the actors occasionally hit their lines too much on the nose—Stoppard’s writing rewards letting the words do the heavy lifting—but I suspect they will lay back a bit as they get into the groove during the month-long run.
As written, Darkside is a radio play whose original production was by the BBC in 2013. Two years later, the Garage Theatre peeps were the first—as in ever—to adapt it for the stage. It went over well enough that Stoppard—a historical giant of theatre, with four Tonys and an Oscar to his credit—sent one of his people from merrie ole England to the little ol’ Garage to see what the fuss was, and the show received the official Tom Stoppard stamp of approval.
The point of this review is to talk about the current reprise, not that original production, so I’ve avoided comparisons between the two. But past experiences influence present experience, so I figure it’s only fair to disclose that your faithful reviewer saw this show through eyes that saw the original, however much or little that fact influenced his review.
While discussing the Garage Theatre’s challenges in staging Darkside back in 2015, Stoppard told me (yeah, I’m name-dropping—it’s Tom Stoppard, for fuck’s sake!) that “every scene is difficult, when not impossible.” The Garage has bravely taken on those many challenges, coming out the other side with mixed results.
But whatever the shortcomings in the production, this is a truly great play, one that stays with you long after you leave the theater if you’re able to focus on the message, which seems even more pertinent today than just a few years ago. “The ice is melting. Your drink is getting warm,” Emily says as Pink Floyd plays us out.
A wall of water is heading for your patio. From space you can see the coal furnaces glowing. We consume everything. We’re dying of consumption. Hardwoods are toppling for dashboards. The last rhino has given up its horn for a cancer cure that doesn’t work. The last swordfish is gasping beneath a floating island of plastic as big as France. The weather report is a state secret.
And if your head explodes with dark forebodings too, I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.
Darkside at the Garage Theatre
Times: Thurs–Sat 8:00 p.m.
The show runs through Dec. 15
Venue: The Found Theater, 599 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach