AUGUST, A TIME of year for late summer beach trips, back-to-school shopping and ripe garden harvests. For Kathleen Akerley of Longacre Lea productions, it's time again for absurdist theater. Every August for the past five years, Longacre Lea has been staging plays with an absurdist edge at Callan Theatre, a small black-box facility at Catholic University.
This year's offering, "Man With Bags," by French playwright Eugene Ionesco, continues this trend.
"My company has been described as 'absurdism obsessed,' " says director Akerley, the singular force behind Longacre Lea. "And that's fine. I find strict realism frustrating; I am not interested in stories that don't have an exaggerated sense of symbolism or don't expand on the notion that things exist beyond what is seen or delve into the significance of searching for what eludes us."
On the surface, "Man With Bags" tells the story of a quest, of a man who tries to visit his birthplace in a country where he doesn't speak the language or know the customs, and of a search for his lost bag -- the one with all his documents. The journey leads him through progressively more difficult situations and challenges.
Akerley calls "Man With Bags" a "dream play," an exploration of consciousness examined through the prism of dreams. Ionesco -- whom Akerley describes as "the father of absurdism" -- creates a strange landscape filled with surprising characters and unexpected confrontations.
Imagine Terry Gilliam's "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" and you're getting close, Akerley says.
"Man With Bags" is a story told on more than one level -- is the man sleeping or is he really communicating with the dead? -- that delves into issues of identity and memory and of making peace with the past to move toward the future. Akerley's approach as a director was not to take an exaggerated or comedic route with scenes -- though she admits that many scenes and situations are quite funny -- but rather to work hard to convey a sense of peril and to maintain a sense of continuity for the main character, who remains a lone realistic presence in an increasingly unrealistic setting. In doing so, she found that she "darkened the hues," emphasizing the more somber aspects and elements of the script.
In following her own interests in absurdist theater, Akerley has created her own following, including cast members who have been with her for many productions: Seven actors in the 10-member cast of "Man With Bags" have worked with her on previous shows; three have been in four shows in a row; and one actor, Michael John Casey, has been with her since her first production in 1999.
"The cumulative benefits of an ensemble, the energy and communication that develops, have helped create genuinely vital and entertaining theater," Akerley says.
Eight cast members play multiple roles, shifting characters and even changing genders. Presented through the fragmented lens of dream life, the familiar faces reappearing again and again in different forms serve to reinforce and reiterate messages.
Akerley, who has been keeping her own dream journal since she was 14, admits that her annual play selection is a reflection of her own interests and psyche.
"I am drawn to plays that give that haunting sense of the infinite being over your shoulder, where the notion of the unexpected convergence of events is more than coincidental. Storytelling that offers glimpses into human consciousness is just more compelling to me."