Sharks rarely swarm onto theater stages. But darned if some Great Whites (or approximations thereof) haven’t torpedoed their way into the delightfully irreverent stunt occupying the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage through Sunday.
“The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, Volume 1: Early Plays/Lost Plays,” created and performed by the New York Neo-Futurists, revisits some of the seminal American dramatist’s lesser-known works (1913’s “A Wife for a Life,” 1916’s “Before Breakfast” and more). In a cheekily inspired touch, the production jettisons the dialogue in the scripts but retains O’Neill’s ponderous, novelistic, micromanaging stage directions — statements such as “His face is the face of one who has wandered far, lived hard, seen life in the rough and is a little weary of it all” or “The sun glares down overhead like a great angry eye of God.” (The New York Neo-Futurists are an offshoot of the Neo-Futurists, a Chicago-based group that has performed at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in recent years. “Complete & Condensed” is part of this spring’s Eugene O’Neill festival.)
Interpreting the material are six suspenders-wearing performers who mime, deadpan and manipulate props as a narrator (Jacquelyn Landgraf), seated at a side of the stage, reads the stage directions aloud. Portraying three shipwrecked characters in the maritime one-act “Thirst,” for example, actors Brendan Donaldson, Connor Kalista and Lauren Sharpe plop themselves down on some life preservers and periodically flash sphinxlike glares to indicate that (as O’Neill informs us) “in the eyes of all three, the light of a dawning madness is shining.” Behind this tableau, meanwhile, actors Daniel Burnam, Cara Francis and Erica Livingston, wearing shark-fin-shaped gold hats, poke their heads over a curtain with tongue-in-cheek menace.
In the absence of any contextualizing or humanizing dialogue, O’Neill’s stage directions — “The sailor . . . sticks out his tongue and points to it,” for example — become enjoyably absurd. Director and adaptor Christopher Loar bolsters the humor with piquant bits of incongruity and over-literalness. To indicate that a painting is “an orgy of colors done in the wildest Synchromist manner,” Sharpe does a risque jig with a fistful of colored scarves. And Burnam, saddled with playing not one but two characters with “irregular features,” stolidly affixes a pig’s snout to the side of his face each time that phrase sounds.
But nothing tops the tribute to “Now I Ask You,” a play that calls for “an interval of three minutes during which the theater remains darkened.” After reading these words, Landgraf dutifully turns off her desk light; the stage lights extinguish, too — and stay off for three minutes.
The prolonged darkness turns out to be both dramatic and, for some reason, hilarious. On opening night, wave after wave of laughter pealed through the murky theater. At one point, a backlit smartphone blinked on in the seating area. “An interval of three minutes during which the theater remains darkened!” Landgraf repeated sternly. The phone light went off. You might be prepared to diss Eugene O’Neill, but his stage directions are a force to be reckoned with.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Direction, adaptation and sound design by Christopher Loar; set and props, Cara Francis; stage manager, Daniel Mirsky; technical direction, Lauren Parrish. 90 minutes. Through Sunday at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300.