The basic premise of “On the Verge,” written by Eric Overmeyer, directed by CSUN’s James De Paul and playing through Nov. 5, can be difficult to grasp at times but fortunately it is a play meant to be individually interpreted.
The first half of the play is full of twists and turns, which feels like trying to watch “Memento” or “Fight Club” before your friends told you what they were about. Overmeyer mixes stiff Victorian language with long-forgotten quotes. Conversations between characters are cut short while the spotlight centers on one and we get what seems like a random anecdote. Accents, melodrama and 1950s memorabilia are jumbled together nonsensically until the second half.
After the intermission, we find that there was a method to Overmeyer’s madness. It does indeed make sense, we think to ourselves, but then he throws us again with his seemingly hastily put together happily ever after ending.
“On the Verge” starts with fog filling the theater and a musical setting in the background. (Note to self: Don’t sit in the upper corner, that’s where the speakers are.) This is where we first meet the main characters: Mary (Julie Brett), Fanny (Georgette Brotherson) and Alex (Katherine Johnson), 19th century explorers off to discover “terra incognita.”
The women walk, hike, climb, rappel and sludge their way through jungles, mountains and cities, all the while talking of their past adventures, their future hopes and fears and their present feeling of confusion as words and phrases they’ve never heard come unbidden into their minds. It is these confusing mixtures of wordplay that captivate and make you lean forward in your seat a little more. You start believe that if you miss a word you will be completely lost, so you focus and you hope that the actors speak loudly and clearly.
The girls’ Victorian costumes are perfect and well-fitted for their travels. The set design was minimal yet not lacking.
By moving wooden crates and miming most of their exploring the characters did not need much more. The backdrop was filled with very American objects. At one point Alex looks up and exclaims “Velveeta!”
Ronnie Ashley, musician extraordinaire, is a voice major at CSUN. She joined the play a week before opening and simply by listening to the music and collaborating with De Paul came up with a tailor-made soundtrack. “She just jumped right in and did great,” said actor Brian Hand, who played all of the male characters.
She said she has enjoyed the connection with the cast, but her musical ability propped up the cast in more ways than one.
Ashley played the piano and drums, and was in charge of other sounds that helped direct the actors. On opening night you expect some mishaps, but Ashley’s contribution helped cover most of them.
The second half of “On the Verge” brought more clarification in one way, but less in others.
We find that the women have not been lost or slowly succumbing to syphilis, but merely time traveling.
They begin to understand the words that popped from nowhere and instinctively know how to use new inventions like the jukebox (just hit it, apparently). The audience realizes that this journey is meant to transport the lives of these three ordinary women into a future. The conflict lies in whether they will accept or reject it.
The end of the play is where Overmeyer lost me. I’m not sure where Overmeyer wanted to go with this play, but the ending is unfulfilling.
The actresses of the play said that the women they portrayed were not meant to depict every woman. “Women are very different from each other,” Brotherson said. “Fanny is very capable, but she has this prince charming idea. At the end, everyone gets what they want.”
“There is a broad scope for interpretation in this play,” Brett said. “It wasn’t until we started analyzing it that I came to understand it better. You don’t realize how nuanced it is in the first read.”
It is definitely a happy, quirky play filled with words plucked right out of a thesaurus, like somnambulist for sleepwalker.
Many of the male characters make the play fun for all ages with over the top antics and accents. The ladies agreed that Hand does a great job with all the character and costume changes.
Mary, played by Brett, is a very proper liberal with just the faintest hint of an upper class lisp. Mary has a fondness for skirts and throughout the play bemoans the idea of trousers on women without applauding femininity. Without pants she has been able to travel and explore better than any man of her time, and once or twice her skirt has saved her life. Brett does a remarkable job of combining Mary’s loyalty to feminine things like skirts, loofahs and powdering her nose, with her scientific confidence and social open-mindedness.
Fanny, the character most driven by feminine emotions, is played by Brotherson. Fanny has left her husband to traverse terra incognita with her two female companions. Throughout the play the explorers are met by eight male characters, but Fanny is most often than not the focus of these visits. When met by a cannibal, she dresses up in a full skirt and a tiara to meet him.
While sleeping, she is woken by a vision of her husband, Grover, who has some enigmatic message for her. She is seduced by the words and mannerisms of a Latin-sounding man, whom she refers to as Mr. Coffee. Mr. Coffee tells her Grover has died in the 1929 stock market crash after having her declared legally dead. Fanny does not seem upset by this news.
Alex is played by Johnson, who is no stranger to CSUN’s theater productions.
Johnson is over the top as Alex, constantly shouting, dancing, singing, sharing her opinions and fighting. Alex is curious, creative, humorous and a crowd favorite.
Hand said he believed the importance of the background characters was to “show what these ladies don’t see for themselves.”
“They give a different perspective,” Hand said.
Opening night of the show brought mixed emotions.
“I know things will get better,” Hand said.
“I like to think of it as a rehearsal with people,” said Johnson, whose first play at CSUN was “The Shape of Things” last spring. “You just have to not take it too seriously or personally.”
The play consistently focuses on very American products and inventions, but Johnson disagreed with the idea that the play was pro-American or nationalistic.
“I don’t think it’s proud to be American, it just identifies America under a microscope,” Johnson said.
The main characters are independent women searching for an era that fits their identities, but the actresses see it slightly differently.
“It’s about people and women in general, not really feminism,” Johnson said. “Anyone’s really capable of anything.”
“I don’t really see it as a feminist statement, but only as it applies to my character,” Brett said.
“Fanny is so independent, so why does she need a tiara and a wig and a man? That’s just who she is,” Brotherson said of her character.
Opening night is always difficult, but the actors, musician, set designers, costume designers, stage manager, director and everyone else involved in the production of “On the Verge” will only get better as the show goes on.
“On the Verge” will continue through Nov. 5.