The KTS’s production of Boris Vian’s The Empire Builders, directed by Alanna Griffin, took a sometimes puzzling script and swept the audience into a chilling tale of a family’s ascent into barbarism and madness.
The play is full of sudden changes in tone, and the actors handled the abrupt emotional shifts well. The vicious attacks on Shmürz, a silent, shadowy figure that follows them wherever they go, were made more disturbing by their sudden abandonment of civility and the quick reappearance of hollow smiles that followed. Though the actors’ reactions were sometimes early, these instances can be excused given the number of quick responses required.
Adriana Fraser adopted a character that mimicked many mothers at their worst with terse smiles and quick, high-strung line delivery. Tom Lute played her husband and the family’s patriarch and gave a bone-chilling performance in the final act, displaying solid emotional control, holding the audience at rapt attention. The pair convincingly displayed the tense dynamic of a couple trying to suppress their looming problems with words.
Meghan Shields, as Zenobia, the couple’s daughter, occasionally was repetitive in her line delivery, but overall, she more than served the purpose of expressing the audience’s confusion, with undertones of insanity building in her demeanor as the plot progressed.
Shmürz, played by Anna Dubinski, seemed too well groomed given the horrifying nature of the character, but Dubinski was committed to the difficult role. Her pained grunts made a few lines hard to hear, but missed bits of the script’s often-nonsensical series of words did not take away from the overall effectiveness of the play.
The prevalence of violence made Griffin’s interesting blocking a challenge, especially considering the audience nearly surrounded the stage. The abuse was performed with realism and intensity, and was often difficult to watch. A few punches, kicks and slaps missed their mark due to off timing or an unexpected angle, but these early mistakes were made up for later on.
Strong performances were matched by strong tech. The lighting, designed by John Maize, was creative and varied. A scene recalling the past was lit to mimic sunshine, and the sudden change in colour made for an unsettling transition from the grey atmosphere, showing the audience how far the family had fallen, or, rather, climbed. Varied brightness added or relieved intensity, and Amanda Shore’s makeup work, featuring grey eyes and pallid complexions, was a feat underneath the many lighting changes.
Daniel Crawford’s set completed the suffocating atmosphere, as the various doorframes slowly closed in on the scene. Set pieces artfully strewn on the floor and hung from the ceiling added to the sense of chaos, and the use of the trunks carrying the family’s belongings was creative; they also served as furniture and even places of refuge.
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Alanna Griffin’s direction makes for a play that is an unapologetically upsetting theatrical experience. The strong ensemble overcomes the occasionally unclear nature of the script by making it more about the characters than the lines they deliver.
The Empire Builders continues its run tonight at 8 p.m. and Saturday Nov. 24 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in the Pit.