Wish We Were Here

Because our corporate overlords demand that every word in this infernal rag drives readers to patronize those businesses that advertise in it, please pick up a hard copy, peruse the ads for medical-marijuana dispensaries, select one (because, yes, your back hurts), get some goods, and then fire up your bong and Uber thyself to the Garage Theatre's production of Darkside. This show is a five-alarm head trip while sober, so watching it uncomfortably numb may reduce your neural synapses to a quivering puddle of ectoplasmic jelly.

But what else would you expect when one of the smartest, cleverest playwrights of his generation, Tom Stoppard, tackles one of the smartest, trippiest icons of Dinosaur Rock: Pink Floyd's album Dark Side of the Moon? Visually, it triggers those brain cells you thought you burned out 25 years ago at Griffith Park's Laserium. Lighting designer Christina L. Munich and video artist Neil Corbin do wonders with the intimate Long Beach space, and director Eric Hamme and his energetic cast somehow turn what has never been an actual stage production (Stoppard wrote it as a radio play for the BBC in honor of Dark Side's 40th anniversary) into a mesmerizing, multimedia, idea-saturated work that provokes more than a few WTF moments.

Stoppard's play incorporates Floyd's album, using it as soundtrack, stimulus and commentary for a bizarre tale that begins with a philosophical question posed by Ethics Man (Paul Knox) that launches a Pilgrim's Progress-like odyssey for a troubled, sensitive and brilliant university student. Emily McCoy (Maribella Magaña) encounters dead boys (Steven Frankenfield) who never existed, a wise man atop the mountain (Craig Johnson), witchfinders (Matthew Anderson), fat men (Rob Young), bankers (Jeffrey Kieviet) and politicians, with most of these meetings in a drought-ravaged landscape or a psychiatric ward.

Amid all that is a lot of talk about kindness and altruism, jugglers on the radio, thought-waves, pleas for environmental action, corrupt co-option of that action, lines from Casablanca and Chinatown, Superman, Kant, Hobbes, and Nietzsche.

It's heady stuff, punctuated by Stoppard's eminently British dry wit. Yes, his story suffers from the Shoehorn Effect, as it needs to adhere to the composition and organization of the album, and that entails forcing some order out of the chaos, as beautiful as it may sound at times, of a 1970s concept album—and we all know the concept in a concept album lies always in the ear of the listener.

But it somehow all works. At least most of the time. It's an homage to Dark Side of the Moon, but it also makes the album feel as if it's still relevant. Yes, we've all heard “Money” and “Us and Them” a kabillion times, and few bands spark such polarizing opinions as Pink Floyd, who are equally hailed for their ambition and creativity and hatoraded for their self-indulgent arena-rock pomposity (kind of like Rush, except, come on, Rush really does suck). But Stoppard's skillful integrating of a soundtrack that many of us grew up idolizing, or despising, into his story absolutely forces a reimagining of the piece.

Getting anyone to care about one of the most commercially successful rock albums in history some 40 years after its release is an accomplishment. Just as impressive, however, is Hamme's turning Stoppard's radio play into a fully realized production (his is the first company to have secured permission from Stoppard to do so). He had a lot of help, with sound designers, technical directors and video assistants mentioned in the program, so who knows who really did what. But their efforts absolutely coalesce into something unique.

As does the ensemble's work. Anderson particularly shines as the witchfinder and Emily's shrink, Dr. Antrobus, and Magaña's Emily contributes a skillful, empathetic performance. Passionately searching for something that resembles the truth, she smacks against obstacles, whether bloviating philosophy professors or myopic, self-serving pigs. Ultimately, her biggest obstacles—such as the brilliantly deluded personality who inspired so much of the album, Syd Barrett—lie in her mind. As she is confronted with the natural wreckage humanity has wrought upon the Earth in pursuit of profits or convenience (“Hardwoods are toppling for dashboards/The last swordfish is gasping beneath a floating island of plastic as big as France”), her pursuit of the milk of human kindness collapses into itself, creating one massive hallucination that is also one hell of a roller-coaster ride.

Basically, her dam breaks open far too soon, and she winds up in a place where it's all dark. Yet even there, she clings to one precious sliver of hope, the same hope that has carried people and nations through solitary dark nights of the soul and unimaginable catastrophe: the possibility there's something better out there, or in here.

Or maybe I just caught a contact high.

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