Zeppo (Peter Moore) is driving around the ring road in Manchester, eating Chicken McNuggets (he buys ’em by the hundred) and reeling off the entire plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark. For some reason, he thinks his passenger, Ollie (Amber Sallis) wasn’t one of the bazillion people who have seen the movie since 1981.((
She’s sort of paying attention and occasionally passing a cube* to the silent masked Cthulhu character in the back seat, who plays with it briefly. (Note: See Addendum below.)
Ollie is looking for help finding her sister, who came to Manchester and has not been heard from; someone told her Zeppo could help. But the possibility of help does not seem promising. Zeppo, who owns everything (he’s a property guy), doesn’t get involved. His father owned everything too, got involved and was killed with a steel rod through his head.
This is Pomona (a real place, and it’s not California), a play by British playwright Alistair McDowall, on stage at the ever-gutsy Steep Theatre Company. Robin Witt directs this story about a place that sounds a little like Goose Island. Zeppo owns Pomona. It’s a concrete island, right in the middle of the city. Overrun with vegetation; tram tracks and train tracks run around it. One road in and one out, gated at both ends. Nothing there but cracked asphalt and weeds. Streetlights don’t work. A hole in the middle of the city.. Looks like what the world will be in a few thousand years, says Zeppo.
The director’s note mentions that property developers are interested in Pomona and plan to build housing, a wharf, restaurants and 19-story condo towers. Lincoln Yards in the middle of Manchester,
Charlie (Brandon Rivera) is a security guard there but he doesn’t really know what he’s guarding. He’s a Dungeons and Dragons fanatic and likes role-playing games (RPGs), which he does with his new friend Keaton (Phoebe Moore). Two women (Fay /Ashlyn Lozano and maybe-Ollie’s sister) meet in a brothel, where Fay shows the new person around the facility and explains why you should insist the guy take a shower first. Gale (Jamila Tyler) assigns Charlie and Moe (Nate Faust) to carry out a hit. Nothing good happens here. It’s a horror show, with comic book overtones.
The story is told episodically, often in two-character set pieces. Time switches around, back and forth, and you will never be sure where you are or when now is. And it can’t be coincidental that most of the characters are named for classic cinema comics and characters, thereby enhancing the idea that the whole thing might be a farce. Or a farcical nightmare.
The seven characters are Zeppo (Marx), Ollie (Hardy), (Buster) Keaton, Charlie (Chaplin), Moe (Howard) of the Three Stooges, and Fay (Wray). Gale stumps me but perhaps the connection is Dorothy (Gale) in The Wizard of Oz. In any case, it can’t be an accident. Everything in Pomona means something ….
Involvement may be a clue to the audience about viewing this often-confusing production. Do we watch, perhaps sympathize or even empathize with the people stuck in the horror show going on around us, on stage and off? And then do nothing? Because any action might mean we will be impaled on a steel rod through our head. That might be McDowall’s message. But I found Pomona puzzling; my plus-one was even more confused. I had the advantage of being able to go home and read the script. Most audience members will not.
Witt choreographs the whole adventure slickly and her cast carries it off well. Joe Schermoly’s minimalist scenic design is functionally pulled together by Brandon Wardell’s moody lighting and Aly Renee Amidei’s costumes.
Steep Theatre staged McDowall’s award-winning play Brilliant Adventures in 2015. It has elements of the horrific too; that’s what lives outside the council flats room where the play takes place—and where a time machine is being built.
Pomona has been extended and continues through September 14 at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn. Running time is 100 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $10-$38 for performances Thursday-Sunday.
*Correction: The cubes are large colorful translucent shapes, probably hexagonal cubes. The script says they’re Rubik’s Cubes, and that’s what I originally wrote.
Addendum, August 30. I haven’t been able to get Pomona out of my head, so I went to see it again tonight. I’m not changing anything I wrote above, although I probably would now give it at least 3 stars. In the interim, I read the script again. And I have to say, the pieces fit together better this time. It’s still a swirling cacophony of images, violence and horror. But now I can see it more as contemporary urban depravity laced together with the lore of H.P. Lovecraft, the iconic horror fiction writer. His character Cthulhu, an octopus-headed dragon god, appears and is referenced throughout Pomona. (Cthulhu inspired the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop role-playing game and a Metallica song, among other things.)
One scene (see the first photo above) where three pairs of actors play D&D at separate tables with lighted screens illuminating their faces brought the story together in a way that it didn’t before. And the fact that all the characters are named for classic comic/cinema characters also makes sense.
Pomona runs for two more weeks at Steep Theatre. See it if you want to experience adventurous theater and you can separate comic-book violence from reality.
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