By JK Clarke
Fans of both Andrus Nichols and Kate Hamill were recently thrilled by the news that the two had formed a new theater company, The Coop. Nichols’ conspicuous absence of late from Bedlam (of which Nichols was a co-founder and which had produced Hamill’s breakout adaptation of Sense and Sensibility) had many curious. But now, with the opening and World Premiere of Barbara Hammond’s Terra Firma at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, there’s even more reason to celebrate.
Based on the impossible to believe, yet apparently true, story of the Principality of Sealand, Terra Firma is set on a smallish, naval defense platform—that looks something like an oil rig without a derrick—60 feet above water, somewhere in the middle of the “Vast Sea.” Andrew Boyce’s set design, which features a wrap around photo of unremarkable, wide-open waters that heightens the absolute-middle-of-nowhere-ness of said platform. But that small piece of “land” is nonetheless the energetically defended Kingdom of Terra Firma, presided over by the Queen (Andrus Nichols), her husband, de facto king Roy (Gerardo Rodriguez), and their son Teddy (Daniel Molina), the prince. As the play opens Jones (John Keating), the only non-royal inhabitant on the island (“I’m the citizen!”) has captured a Hostage (Tom O’Keefe, also a Bedlam veteran from their celebrated five-person Hamlet/St. Joan repertory), a fisherman who’s a citizen of no country. We get the impression that the rest of the world is in some sort of post-apocalyptic chaos (nuclear war? Zombies? who knows). This micro kingdom, however, is determined to succeed by following the conventions of a civilized nation. Among which: they have a defense department, are making plans (albeit fraught) to expand the population, and they are working on a Constitution.
Jones and Roy are benevolent captors who treat the Hostage kindly for the most part, even playing chess and engaging in what appears to be teasingly antagonistic banter. O’Keefe’s “Hostage” is amusing in his deadpan indignance and general resignation to his fate. His accent is vaguely Russian crossed with German, and possibly Scandinavian, deliberately having no actual origin. Keating, who is fast becoming one of the great off-Broadway comic actors (e.g. his hilarious Old Shepherd in TFANA’s The Winter’s Tale and utterly delightful roles in last year’s O’Casey cycle at Irish Rep), is charming, funny and clever in this outstanding performance. Not long after Teddy returns from a long voyage at sea, bearing only a shrubbery (echoes of Monty Python) for his efforts, a man, The Diplomat (slyly played by T. Ryder Smith) arrives desperately seeking shelter in the kingdom. The population swollen to six, they begin to contemplate the fate that awaits them.
Before I even saw the word “Beckettian” in the press materials, I couldn’t help but think of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist Happy Days, particularly its recent production at Theater for a New Audience (TFANA), starring the inestimable Diane Wiest. Most great absurdist plays were written in the early part of the 20th century and as Western European countries dealt with identity politics in the interwar era of mass urbanization and economic depression. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Sartre’s No Exit; and Pirandello’s Enrico IV, are some of the best and most enduring examples. It’s hard to name any since that period that have endured or are as well written. However, even apart from the play’s universally delightful and nuanced performances and direction (Shana Cooper—Julius Caesar at TFANA), Hammond has written a terrific play in Terra Firma. And it is Nichols, who plays a character not unlike Wiest’s (and with equal brilliance) who drives this fact home with an exclamation point. Obsessed with writing the nation’s constitution, but still working out the preamble, she wears boots, drab worker’s clothes, and a fake-diamond tiara (costumes: Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene), while eliciting laughs by striding through the nation with her hand poised above her head in a regal half-wave and reviewing the in-progress document.
Terra Firma is Off-Broadway theater par excellence. A solid, well-written, well-acted theatrical piece that leaves you pleased, laughing and thinking about what you saw long after you’ve left the theater. The Coop’s first shot across the bow is an absolute delight.
Terra Firma. Through November 10 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center (One Bernard Baruch Way, East 25th Street between Lexington and Third Avenue). One hour, 45 minutes, no intermission. www.baruch.cuny.edu/bpac/
Photos: Ashley Garrett