Review: ‘Terminus’ at Magic Theatre

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: *****)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“Terminus” plays at the Magic Theatre from May 22 through June 16, 2013.)

Playwright Mark O’Rowe has enjoyed a distinguished career in the Irish theatre, with numerous productions premiering at both the Gate and the Abbey. He first collaborated with the Magic Theatre for the West Coast premiere of his play, “Howie The Rookie”, an extraordinarily successful piece that won the Ronney Prize for Irish Literature. He is known for plays with small casts constructed with lengthy monologues in which stories are told rather than enacted. But what telling! This is a playwright whose poetic gifts are among the most remarkable in contemporary literature, and his monologues soar and thrill and attack the listener with an almost vicious visceral punch that is unforgettable. His characters, and their stories, are often violent, sometimes disgusting, occasionally stretching credibility, always riveting.

“Terminus” takes place in a sort of limbo. The set consists of nothing more than a pile of ash, lit by spotlights which pick out the three actors who speak individually, never to each other, in interlocking monologues. At the start, we do not know who they are or why they are on this ash heap, nor, apparently do they. It is an opening worthy of the Twilight Zone.

Actor A begins to speak of her work as a counselor on a suicide line and tells a story of how she went looking for a client who is the victim of domestic abuse. Her story is riveting and gradually gives way to Actor B who tells an unrelated story about being set up in a sexual situation by manipulating “friends”. This story gives way to a a monologue from Actor C who is himself a vicious murderer.

What the stories have in common is vivid imagery, violence, ugliness and yet always sympathetic narrators – even the murderer.

(l to r) Marissa Keltie, Carl Lumbly and Stacy Ross in the first American production of Mark O'Rowe's "Terminus" at Magic Theatre (Photo Credit: Jennifer Reiley)
(l to r) Marissa Keltie, Carl Lumbly and Stacy Ross in the first American production of Mark O’Rowe’s “Terminus” at Magic Theatre (Photo Credit: Jennifer Reiley)

Each story continues with more and more elaboration, gradually interlinking the lives of the three characters, carrying us through a great variety of emotion, situation and setting, even into the skies and descending into hell. It’s astonishing.

As the depth of characterization and story telling increases, the language gets more and more interesting. Eventually, almost every line begins to feature internal rhyme. The monologues give way to what feels like a long form poem, very musical, very disconnected, not always easy to understand, but endlessly engaging.

This is some of the most astonishing writing I have ever heard in the theatre. It whips, snaps, sings, sizzles, dances, irritates, startles and stuns.

Still, the play frustrates somewhat because it is difficult to grasp the intent of all these pyrotechnics. The actors are all excellent, managing the rhymed language and complex imagery with great skill. Carl Lumbly (recently seen in “The Motherf**ker with the Hat” at SF Playhouse and now making his Magic Theatre debut) is particularly haunting as the mass murderer condemned to hell yet somehow retaining our sympathy and even becoming a convincing figure of romance. Both Stacy Ross and Marissa Keltie have sublime moments as well. But when all is said and done, it is difficult to grasp the point. It is like ambient trance music—it just goes on, carrying us with it, and then stops. There is no destination and no conclusion to be drawn. Arguably, this is the playwright’s intent and perhaps he is making an existential comment upon life and its ending and both the beauty and meaningless of it all. Perhaps. I’m not sure.

Whether it leaves the viewer confused or enlightened, there is no doubt that this will stand as one of the most astounding productions of the season, well worth seeing.

For further information, click here.

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“Terminus” by Mark O’Rowe, first American production produced by Magic Theatre. Director: Jon Tracy. Set Design: Robert Brill. Costume Design: Christine Crook. Lightning Design: Gabe Maxson. Sound Design: Sara Huddleston. Dialect Coach: Deborah Sussel. Technical Director: Dave Gardner.

A: Stacy  Ross. B: Marissa Keltie. C: Carl Lumbly.

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