Review: The PlayMakers’ Production of ‘Bewilderness’ is a Hilarious and Profound Romp

By Kim Jackson

What Lin-Manuel Miranda did for Alexander Hamilton, Zack Fine may do for Henry David Thoreau: make us just as obsessed with this American literary figure as he is. Fine’s hilarious and profound romp of a drama, Bewilderness, set at Walden Pond, blurs the line, or more accurately, removes the fourth wall that figuratively separates an audience from the action on stage. Part improv comedy, part theater of the absurd (without the bleakness) tossed with a generous amount of Brechtian theatricalism, illustrate the playwright’s and Thoreau’s processes as writers. And the overall effect takes intellectual humor to a whole new zany level.

Fine, who taught in the Professional Actor Training Program and played Oberon in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, has returned to PlayMakers Repertory Company for the second production in the 2018-19 Kenan Stage series. This time, however, Fine is taking on the role of playwright, director, and actor. “I set out to create an irreverent and absurd world,” notes Fine, “where audiences can participate in the sheer joy of the theatre while also taking a dip into the pond of one of America’s great philosophers.” Indeed it is a glorious, surreal journey as we follow Fine, the playwright-turned-actor-playing-himself-as-a playwright, into the recreated 10’ x 16’ cabin Thoreau retreated to on land owned by another major American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau’s confusion at being in a play (“Am I dead?”) reflects the initial reaction of the audience to Fine speaking directly to us, the audience in attendance, as he introduces himself and his friend, Thoreau. Is it part of the show? Or as Thoreau wonders, “Is the afterlife a regional theater in North Carolina?” Questions constantly swirl as the action unfolds, time bends onto itself, a woodchuck spins tales of disaster befalling his own kind, and doctors break into song.

Geoffrey Culbertson’s Thoreau moves from an overly wrought ambivalence to a shocked perplexity when he meets his dead brother, John, played with a mischievous older brother knowingness by Dan Toot. Together, the brothers fondly reminisce over their long-ago river travel, the subject of Thoreau’s first failed publication, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. A wise-cracking woodchuck named Darren is played marvelously broad by Jeffrey Blair Cornell; he delivers some of the wittiest lines in the play with precise comedic timing. David Adamson’s Emerson is appropriately professorial, pontificating and railing (“son of a bitch!”) as he intermittently enters the stage pushing a podium. Three doctors add a bit of Broadway musical parody to the proceedings as Paracelsus, the 16th century Renaissance man, and early holistic practitioner, rendered with a great accent and aplomb by company member Ray Dooley, offers his pronouncements on the ills afflicting the two brothers.

The most marvelous section of the show comes with the arrival of a feisty Cynthia Thoreau, Henry’s mother, played with the right mixture of virtuous outrage and probing humor by Julia Gibson. Her presence consumes the stage as she harangues her son for shutting himself away, and she takes anachronistic potshots at 19th-century problems. The audience laughed and then cheered this character’s outspokenness that anchored her firmly as a more than modern woman eager to change the world.

While on the surface a surplus of imagined madness fuels the comedy, this play renders Thoreau-like philosophical observations on life, its grief, failure, and ultimate joy. Fine debuts as an insightful storyteller, incorporating a range of theater styles as well as his personal explorations of being a character in this world. Emerson may have provided the eulogy for this play, but Bewilderness promises the launch of an insanely creative writing career for Zack Fine.

Bewilderness runs through Sunday, January 13th at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill. For more information visit: http://playmakersrep.org/.

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