It's little wonder that Nearly Naked Theatre's Damon Dering has wanted to produce The King of Infinite Space for more than a decade. Andrew Ordover's obscure morality play is a satisfying, compelling piece of writing with more dramatic turns than a week's worth of made-for-TV movies. In the director's notes, Dering gushes that he's "been dreaming of directing this play for eleven years," and while the result is only slightly better than mediocre, Ordover's superb script and an astonishing lead performance help make Dering's dream something of a success.
The story is set in the ruins of a prison on the edge of a desert, where a cruel king presides over a band of former prisoners and their families. The grown children of these onetime jailbirds have recently challenged the king, who, after many years of peace, has no patience for revolution. To punish the young rebels, he forces them to stage a play for their leader, a young man named Abel. The play, written by the king's scribe, tells the story of the original prisoners and what became of them during a similar rebellion. Abel is eventually made to join the cast of the play, and learns the nasty truth about what happened to his forebears, as well as a violent lesson about leadership.
Ordover's story, which features two or more actors playing each lead character and alternate versions of the same scene, can be tough to follow. But Shakespeare scholars will enjoy the endless and none-too-subtle references to Old Will (the play's storyteller is even named Shakespeare), and the more compelling second act and wild wind-up are worth returning for.
The King of Infinite Space
Phoenix Theatre's Little Theatre, 100 East McDowell
Continues through Sunday, April 7. Call 602-274-2432.
Tim Butterfield and Tifani Pust's postapocalyptic stage set, suggesting the ruins of a prison, is cleverly executed and suitably messy, and Dering's makeup design -- particularly the cunning body art and bloody battle scars -- is first-rate. Mostly, though, the production is cheap-looking and crude. The far-too-frequent interpretive dance numbers are clumsy and sluggish; the ragbag costuming unexceptional; and the pair of nude scenes are gratuitous and do nothing to forward the story. The prisoners begin nearly every scene by slapping their thighs and breaking into off-key singing, usually accompanied by tinny handbells or a dime-store flute. These tepid song-and-dance numbers, which announce the transition between the play and the play-within-a-play, grind the action to a halt again and again. While Dering handles the dramatic passages with some skill, the conga lines and rhythmic writhing are ill-placed and annoying.
With a single exception, the acting is unexceptional. But Michael Sherwin's performance in the lead is so dazzling, it appears to belong to another production. He delivers Abel's lines with a riveting intensity, a brilliant blend of chutzpah and megalomania. Red-faced and shrieking one moment, Sherwin smoothes Abel's hard angles with angst and sorrow in the next. In his final scene, he whips up a cataclysm of pain, then a catatonic madness that casts the entire play in tragic shadows. Sherwin's performance is a tribute to Ordover's writing, and rescues an otherwise near-miss production from failure.
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