Theater patrons couldn't be altogether blamed if they tippy-toed out of the Forum at Stage West Community Playhouse after Act 1 of the comedy-drama A Company of Wayward Saints.
To be blunt, Act 1 looks like a bunch of people in Mardi Gras masks and unmatched costumes stalking and prancing around the stage, arguing, posturing, stroking their own egos and not making a lot of sense.
But have patience. And come back for Act 2. It is well worth it. Nope — it's more than well worth it. With Act 2, it all comes together and makes sense. It's a theater experience you won't soon forget.
Be warned, though, that Company/Saints isn't going to be spoon-fed to you like, say, a Neil Simon or Ray Cooney comedy. Grasping everything in George Herman's script takes some work and very careful listening. I suspect it also takes seeing the show a few times to really absorb it all. Many lines come with references to literature, pop culture and stage lingo that can sneak by in a flash (more deliberate delivery by the players might help).
Remember, though, that plays like this are a big reason why Stage West built the Forum: to bring sometimes challenging, off-the-well-worn-path productions to local audiences, some of them classics (Virginia Woolf, Death of a Salesman), some locally written (Mrs. Giorgio's Day Off), some spooky (Veronica's Room), some avant-garde (this one), and, yes, some better left on the shelf. Oh, well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Rest assured, A Company of Wayward Saints is one of the gains.
It might help to think of the play as, say, watching members of the U.S. Congress, a meeting of a contentious homeowners association board of directors, or (heaven forbid) your last Thanksgiving family gathering.
In other words, in Act 1, everybody has his or her own self-serving agenda, never mind the greater good.
The premise is that a troupe of present-day itinerate actors is stuck far from home and broke. The manager, who calls himself Harlequin (Dalton Benson) and a number of other names, has worked a deal with a local duke to pay their way back home in exchange for a production of the duke's choosing.
Harlequin breaks the theatrical "fourth wall" and talks to the imaginary duke and also the audience as the actors introduce themselves, their bloated egos in full throttle.
The duke has requested a play on the history of mankind, and these improvisational actors decide to present him with vignettes of important moments in time.
They dish up twisted versions of the Garden of Eden, Odysseus and Julius Caesar's Rome, but they all quickly dissolve into quarrels and chaos as egos clash and petty personal disputes fly out of control (see the Congress, HOA, Thanksgiving comparison?). It ends with the eight players stomping off the stage in a huff, vowing never to return.
Fifteen minutes later, Benson's Harlequin comes out and, in the dulcet tones of a physician giving news of a fatal disease, tells the audience that there will be no show, since there are no actors.
Then Scapino (W. Paul Wade, who also directed the play) hesitantly comes on stage, the masks come off, and Harlequin tells Scapino what's what, which is pretty cynical and not at all flattering to mankind — and this is when the play really gets cooking.
The other players wander on, take off their masks, real and symbolic, and decide that if they are ever going to make it home, they have to work together.
The History of Mankind is too big, they decide, but the history of a single man is doable. In turn, they create vignettes that tell the story, addressing complex, controversial human issues — When does life begin? What is the nature of love? What are the responsibilities of parenthood? How do you wrap up the loose ends when death approaches? — that are philosophical tit-for-tats told by loving and lovable people.
That's the point. The point of the whole play. With parables and allegories, it becomes what director Wade says in his program note: "the most faithful representation of real life that I have ever experienced."
The production isn't perfect. There are lighting flaws (we need to see those other faces all the time, please, because they're as much a part of the lesson as the faces of those teaching the lesson), some of the players swallow their best lines and, interestingly, some underplay their characters during Act 1.
Company/Saints, like sushi or scotch, might not be for everyone, and for others, an acquired taste.
Even so, serious theater lovers should avail themselves of the opportunity to see this modern classic at least once, probably more, while they can.