Magic reaches a dark, rhythmic Terminus

May 31

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Marissa Keltie (left), Carl Lumbly and Stacy Ross play nameless characters facing a dark Dublin night in the first American production of Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus at Magic Theatre. Below: Ross plays a former school teacher now working with a volunteer crisis hotline who takes a personal interest in one of her callers. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

Safe to say you’re not going to see anything like Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus, the aptly named conclusion to Magic Theatre’s 46th season. If you saw O’Rowe’s last show at the Magic, the extraordinary Howie the Rookie 13 years ago, you’ll know to expect vivid, visceral language delivered in monologues. That seems to be O’Rowe’s specialty, along with depicting the rougher edges of Dublin with a strange sort of compassion and a gift for elemental storytelling that grabs hold and won’t let go.

While Howie operated in a familiar street thug/crime world setting, Terminus is something altogether different. Like one of his three characters in the play, O’Rowe pushes himself out on a precarious limb and leaps. There’s a distinct criminal element here as well, along with descriptions of violence that are somehow more vivid and horrific than if we were actually seeing them, but there’s also a supernatural, even spiritual, aspect to the play that is remarkably moving – if, that is, you’re willing to make the leap with O’Rowe and his brave actors and accept that one of the characters is falling in love with a demon from hell who takes corporeal form consisting entirely of wriggling worms.

This is brave, bold storytelling, and director Jon Tracy and his three actors, Stacy Ross, Marissa Keltie and Carl Lumbly, are wholly up to the challenge (Irish accents notwithstanding) of holding our attention for nearly two hours without intermission. When Ross begins her first monologue, it quickly becomes apparent that O’Rowe has crafted a play in verse – not with a strict meter but with a lilting internal, natural rhyme scheme that gives the storytelling a distinctly musical feel along with a hyper-theatrical remove from reality that only intensifies the twists and turns of the plot.

This is a dark, dark story, so it’s entirely appropriate that Robert Brill’s set is an exercise in blackness. The actors stand on what looks like a mound of shredded tire rubber. Or coal. Or something equally black and dirty. Gabe Maxson’s lights are stark bolts of illumination slicing through the thick stage smoke. Literally and figuratively there’s not a lot of light in this tale, but what you see is sharply in focus.

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How the actors memorized their great blocks of rhyming text and then managed to infuse them with deep, flawed humanity is staggering to think about. All three make real connections with their characters, whose stories do link in eventual, surprising ways, and each has at least a moment or two of shiver-inducing horror or beauty. Pretty much every minute of Ross’s monologues is a sterling example of a skilled actor losing herself in her character but always keeping the audience with her. Her story is the most immediately moving, and the supernatural twist benefits her most. Ross is simply astonishing. How is it even possible that this great Bay Area actors gets better and better?

Keltie goes from damaged young woman fighting with life to a being in transformation with surprising charm and subtle intensity. And Lumbly gives us a man we think we know who then reveals himself to be someone else entirely. The ease with which he inhabits such a dis-eased character is astonishing and serves the story in powerful ways.

As good as the actors are, as strong as Tracy’s production is, Terminus is still a play of interwoven monologues. The fact that the three people on stage don’t ever engage in dialogue for nearly two hours is frustrating. O’Rowe’s approach to storytelling is clear, as are his reasons for keeping the stories separate. But even though I was fully engaged in the show, I crave interaction between actors on stage.

Still, Terminus is a play that lingers well after you’ve left the fog of the theater. The intricacies of the plot, the intensity of the characters and the sense of something larger guiding their trajectories continues to fascinate.

[bonus interview]

I talked to Terminus playwright Mark O’Rowe for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here. (subscription may be required)

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus continues through June 16 a Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$62. Call 415-441-88722 or visit www.magictheatre.org.

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