By Judah Taylor
“On the Verge: or the Geography of Yearning” is really a strange little gem of a play.
It has its difficulties, though it shines in its own right.
Throughout the two-and-a-half hour production there is a palpable lack of antagonist — and plot development, which can make it hard to get into. That didn’t stop director Russell Henderson from cooking up a charming bit of entertainment in UK’s Guignol Theatre, though.
His recipe was as follows: the silliness and over-the-top action of a “Monty Python” sketch combined with the 19th century female-equivalent protagonists of “The Hangover.” A dash of “Gangnam Style,” topped with a modern ensemble of “iPod People” the ensemble was dressed in all black and carried iPods mimicking the old iPod ads.
The result was a hilarious and modernly fresh look at one of playwright Eric Overmyer’s Broadway hits.
The story of “On the Verge” follows three Victorian women, Mary, Alex and Fanny, who are exploring what they believe to be Terra Incognita, an uncharted exotic land.
Each woman has her own unique background and personality, but all are independent — especially from men.
They spend much of the expedition traveling through jungle and discussing the merits and future of trousers. But, as the story unfolds it becomes apparent that these three wise women are on no ordinary journey. They are traveling through time as well as space, from 1888 to as late as 1955, to be precise.
During their travels they encounter and marvel in new technologies and products, such as eggbeaters and cool whip.
The UK Department of Theatre’s productions always seem to add a unique spin to each play, and it was certainly there for “On the Verge.”
In a spin that the late Steve Jobs might admire, the ensemble dressed as people from old iPod TV ads, completely in black with white headphones. The background lit up in many colors mimicking the ads even further. Even the jukebox in “Nicky’s Paradise,” the 1950s nightclub the girls visit, is a giant iPod.
Between scenes, the ensemble often danced to “Gangnam Style” by Psy, a South Korean YouTube sensation.
With only four scripted actors (one who plays eight characters) and limited stage directions, “On the Verge” can be a daunting play for any crew to pull off. UK’s production wasn’t perfect, but mind you even Broadway productions aren’t.
The ensemble wasn’t exactly doing the “Gangnam Style” dance correctly — or always in unison — and sometimes it was a little hard to hear if you sat in the back of the theater, but these few hiccups weren’t enough to detract from the brilliance of the overall performance.
Abby Sheridan, who played Fanny, and Madison McGhee, who played Alex, were both, once again, standout performers. Their two characters were constantly at odds, and perpetually endearing. McGhee in particular provided much comic relief, while Sheridan had the audience saying, “Wow, wow, wow” with her the whole night. Just like in her performance in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” Sheridan was commanding, eloquent and sinisteringly funny, albeit in a completely different manner.
Perhaps the only tragedy of Shakespearian proportions in the play was that Michael Sheehy did not get as much stage time as the other three performers. He played eight characters, including a Yeti that seemed to be the child of a possible union between Fonzie Bear from “The Muppets,” and the “Wampa” from “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.”
Little stage direction or background is given to these characters and Sheehy took advantage of the situation, putting in a hilarious over-the-top acting performance that kept the audience’s attention.
Maggie Howell, who played Mary, was equally as impressive. She kept the other two ladies in check and the scenes moving forward.
Lines were delivered by all four actors with convincing emotion and lifelike movement that may befit a larger stage than a university production.
Overall, the production was “On the Verge” of brilliance.
The sets were more than impressive. One jungle scene reminisced of “Legends of the Hidden Temple” on Nickelodeon, and another nailed a 1950s nightclub. Props were imaginative and resourceful, and the costume design left nothing to be wanted.
In fact, the performance was as good as you’ll see at a school production, and design and sets were even better.
But, there is just something about the lack of antagonist and conflict that left me “yearning” for more. However, fans of anything “Monty Python” will probably rate it as one of the better productions of the season.
But for me, the play is, as Sheridan’s character Fanny said about cream cheese upon discovering it, “not great, not bad, but not great either.”
Final performances of “On the Verge” will be at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 6-9 at the Singletary Center.