Saturday, August 12, 2017

Motley Crew
Mike Coghlan, Julia Cunningham, Lisa M. Smith, Jamie Knox, Christine Eide, and Jeff Messer in Six Knots

The Magnetic Theatre
Six Knots by Travis Lowe
Through August 19, 2017, at Magnetic 375, 375 Depot Street, River Arts District

Confine a cast of unsavory characters in a enclosed space.  Raise the stakes for escape. Wait to see whose primitive survival instincts kick in first. 

It’s a classic thriller formula with many variations to charge up a writer’s imagination.  And lots of opportunities to probe dark places of the soul. 

Jean-Paul Sartre may have given this storytelling device its ultimate expression in the 1944 one-act No Exit, with its famously bleak conclusion, “Hell is other people.” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 movie Lifeboat probably gave the formula its best known adrift-at-sea setting.

Now Asheville actor and fledgling playwright Travis Lowe is offering a contemporary take with Six Knots, premiering at the Magnetic Theatre through August 19. Lowe isolates a crew of six sailors, two men and their wives and two women who are about to be married, on a luxury sailboat moving slowly off the British Virgin Islands.  He gives all but one of them seriously sinister intentions.

Lowe may be as slow as his drifting vessel to unmask their unsettling plans or even make us suspect they have them. But he brings his knotted plotlines together in a walloping second act of comic mayhem.

About to go under

The boat belongs to Randy Lowell, the owner of a company that operates prisons under contract for state governments.  He and his wife are entertaining Randy’s former software developer, Todd Reynard, and his wife, Kyra, who still works for the company as bookkeeper.  Todd now runs his own software company.

Arriving by dinghy will be Deborah Fulton, who owns an investment firm. With her is her fiancée, Dyan Grove, known as Pippi, a writer of pop fiction.

Neither Todd nor Randy know that each other’s company is about to go under. Randy needs new software to run his prisons with fewer guards and less paperwork, and he wants Randy to come back to work for him. For his part, Todd hasn’t come up with a successful new software package to replace one he sold to another company.
Randy also wants to lure Deborah into injecting new capital into his company. Todd and Kyra, we learn in the second act, have their own financial bailout plan.  It isn’t pretty.

After Deborah hauls herself up over the boat’s gunwale, she is soon revealing to Todd that she aims to buy a controlling interest in Randy’s company. She will have Randy fired, strip the company of its assets, and move on for the next kill.

Pippi, meanwhile, quickly confides to Randy that she isn’t a very good writer. She doesn’t mind if Deborah has other fiancées in other cities, as long as the food is good and the booze is plentiful and she can get on with her writing.

In fact, all the people are more hasty in explaining their motives to strangers than such devious characters probably would be.

The playwright spends the first act setting up his characters’ backstories. We don’t get the hints we need to keep us in suspense about where his story might be going.  When Todd, played engagingly by Mike Coghlan, denounces Randy for running his for-profit prisons on the backs of his inmates’ slave labor, we might wonder if we’re in for an Ibsenite drama on the evils of capitalism.

Gleeful villainy

Randy is a vulgar, sexist blowhard.  As played by Jeff Messer, he is also curiously mild-mannered. He readily acknowledges he’s an asshole. He claims to have hurt feelings being called a slave owner.  But his little pangs of conscience don’t make this unpleasant character appealing.  Either the actor or the playwright hasn’t applied the Drama 101 lesson: the more villainous the villain, the more we like him.

On the other hand, playwright and actor perfectly capture the gleeful villainy of the vulture capitalist Deborah. From the moment she appears over the side of the boat, hoisting a sack of belongings, a bag of limes, and her partner with her, Deborah, as played by the irrepressible Julia Cunningham, has us in tow as well. By the time she reveals her plan, we’re rooting for her to succeed.

Nautical wild bunch

Cunningham is well matched by Lisa M. Smith as Pippi.  With her shapely shaved head, languid beauty, liquid dark eyes, and throaty voice, this actor could have been in the playwright’s mind when he has Deborah describe her lust-at-first sight. It was at a bookstore, and Pippi made her sweat so much she soaked the book she was holding to have signed. 

It’s a vivid bit of imagery at which this playwright excels.  He's also deft with some witty repartee. There's fun with the state of Georgia and illegal lesbians.

Later, Lowe gives Pippi a monologue suggesting what this nautical wild bunch is all about. “I find the fishes jumping particularly fascinating,” she says, gazing into the horizon. “I mean, why do they do that?”

It's one of two things, she surmises. “Either they are being pursued, or they are doing the pursuing. But one can't be the predator forever. There's always a bigger fish. Down there, under the surface, something horrible.” 

But there's a third option. “Maybe some just do it for fun. Most fish live their lives down in the silent grey, where the colors drop away in feet. Where the sound is everywhere, but hollow, like nothingness.”

So  we’re all one of three fishes, Lowe is saying. One is happily lost in “life’s haze of coral beauty.”  Another is “wary, uncontent,” constantly aware of “dull death creeping 'round your fins.” A third is “an oddball, a freak, bent and irregular, curious or bizarre. You don't care for drifting, and you have little need for fear. You jump for fun. In triumphant revelry of your, perhaps short, fishy life.”

Pippi is a better writer that she gives herself credit for.

This overt statement of a play’s theme could have come across as fine writing, but Lowe pulls it off by staying metaphorical.  He’s aided by Smith’s hypnotic delivery. 

Things don’t work out so well a little later, however, when Kyra denounces Randy and his wife for treating people like numbers.  Jamie Knox is properly passionate, but here Lowe argues literally rather than poetically. 

Figuring out the recipe

Part of the fascination of the Magnetic Theatre’s mission of bringing new plays to the stage is watching new, and not so new, playwrights at work.  Most producers give embryo scripts a process of development, with workshops, feedback, and revision.  Even more-stage-ready products often undergo lengthy previews.  Tales of late-night post-performance rewriting before a morning rehearsal followed by frenzied memorizing before that evening’s performance are theatrical legend.

The Magnetic’s indefatigable producing artistic director, Steven Samuels, sometimes brings his audiences into the kitchen while the chef may still be figuring out the recipe.  It’s a daring choice.  For theatrical gourmets, the meal may not always be perfectly cooked, but when the playwright is as promising as Travis Lowe, it’s worth looking over his shoulder as he learns to wield his utensils.   

Arnold Wengrow is the author of The Designs of Santo Loquasto, a chronicle of the set and costume designer's work on Broadway, Off Broadway, for dance, opera, and the movies, including thirty films by Woody Allen.
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