Tuesday, July 25, 2017

“Alex and Aris” Has a Dual Audience

Alex & Aris (Chris Bennion)
Alex & Aris
ACT Theatre
Through August 6, 2017

I expect large chunks of people to like something I might not and vice versa – nature of criticism… But sometimes when I feel very intrigued, I get startled when I become aware of others who don’t feel the same way. Attending opening night of ACT’s world premiere play, Alex & Aris, I heard about a fair amount of intermission-leavers and people who just plain didn’t care about the characters.

I understand it and therefore will focus this review around what “they” (the playwright, Moby Pomerance, and director John Langs) may be attempting to demonstrate in this play about the historical but murky period of time, four years, that the great philosopher, Aristotle, spent tutoring the young man who would go on to become Alexander “the Great”. 


The genesis of the play was essentially a “commission,” where Langs asked Pomerance, who had a play chosen as ACT’s New Play Award, The Piano Men, if Pomerance had any more to look at. 


Pomerance gave him a treatment of this play (a few pages) and Langs asked him to finish it, as a two-hander (only two characters), in a matter of months. This restriction was both an opportunity and a huge challenge. That specific choice becomes a matter to consider in the success of the material.

On the one hand, that allows for an extremely intense interaction between Aristotle (Darragh Kennan), whose career has stalled out and for whom this job, teaching young Macedonian aristocrats, is presented as sort of scraping the bottom of a career barrel, and Alexander (Chip Sherman) who begins the play as a 14 year-old boy who is being trained as a soldier, and apparently was abused for years in order to learn military strategy and harsh concepts of war.


On the other hand, it depends essentially on the teaching part. To a certain extent, it forces the audience to attend class with Alex. I particularly liked the first act lessons and trying to follow the points where “Aris” (who knows if anyone ever used a diminutive for Aristotle…) set up – and then doubled back on – concepts teaching the difference between warmongering and what happens when an army wins, the aftermath being almost more important than the war itself. We have plenty of examples of bungling that lesson in current history (cough cough “Iraq” cough cough “Afghanistan”).


Aristotle appears to want to teach the breadth of humanity. He asks questions like, “What kinds of poetry do (the subjugated populants) recite?” These are ideas that Alexander has never been asked before. Any questions about how many soldiers an enemy has, or what kind of terrain one has to cover can quickly be recited. Aristotle apparently understands the popular methods of teaching a warrior, with abusive tactics like starvation and beatings, and introduces a new teaching method based on analysis to young Alexander.

Kennan and Sherman both embody their roles well. There are aspects of tight timing that they pull off (some fight choreography, for instance) in syncopated rhythms. Kennan is suitably commanding and whiny and manipulative and compassionate. Sherman is suitably self-effacing and intimidated and intimidating. The material gives them a lot to work with.


A main question is what a second act should accomplish. The pay-off of the play would seem to be that Alexander fundamentally changed after spending those four years with Aristotle. Perhaps it is hinting that if Alexander had failed to receive this particular tutoring, that Alexander would never have become “the Great.” In the second act, the last scene is years removed from the tutoring when Alexander is now an assured general and overlord to vast provinces of land. He seems to explain how he was able to become this man. 


However, the linkage to Aristotle’s influence is currently tentative and oblique. That is, if the intent is to show that influence. It could be debated that much of the second act could be dispensed with and a coda – some sort of speech by Alexander in which we can see remnants of Aristotle’s thoughts issuing from Alexander’s lips – created instead. 


Has Alexander infused those teachings into an aspect of a benevolent ruler or become a tyrant? I wish it were much clearer. As it is, the second act may please audience members who want more “action” in their play, but I’m not sure if it accomplishes the mission of the two-character limitation and the ultimate meaning we’re to draw from the entire effort.


In summary, if you like “talky” plays and the mental exercise of following characters thoughts, complicated though they be, you may well enjoy the hell out of this play. If that description gives you the heebie jeebies, I’ll guess you’d be one that would be unhappy and wish you hadn’t gone.


For more information, go to www.acttheatre.org or call 206-292-7676.