Theatre Review: The Empire Builders is a vividly refreshing & chilling journey
Before I delve into a review of MadLab and Shepherd Productions’ rendition of The Empire Builders, watch this first:
Now that you watched that (you did, right?), kudos to Johnny Hall for creating an engaging and true teaser trailer. This video aptly acknowledges the awesome production occurring within the walls of MadLab.
Written by French writer and jazz musician Boris Vian in 1957, the story centers on the Dupont family, Leon, Anna (his wife), Zenobia (their daughter) and Mug (their servant). While they once lived in a spacious apartment with many luxuries, fear upon hearing “the noise” lured them to move up one floor. This chaotic action occurs several times throughout the show; each time the family finds a little less—the space is smaller, they forget some object or a door disappears. Meanwhile, each new apartment the family inhabits features the Schmürz, a beggar-like yet other-worldly creature that suffers beatings and tortures from most of the family.
Overall, the acting distinguishes itself. Stefan Langer deserves his own round-of-applause as the lineless, yet ever-present Schmürz. His slow and steady evolution from crawling portion of a beast to erect walking being subtly underscore the looming danger for the Dupont family. His eyes speak louder than any words could. For that matter, all of the actors utilize their bodies quite fully in their roles, particularly the face, as is needed in French theater. Mary Beth Griffith stands out as the thoughtful and forth-seeing Zenobia in one of the finest female performances I’ve seen in Columbus. Of course, Jim Azelvandre sets the tone and pace of the piece as the Father, in which he nearly single-handedly occupies the second act. His energy show impressive skill.
MadLab Artistic Director Andy Batt fearlessly spear-heads this production to direct a vividly refreshing show. His attention to minute details allows for this very wordy and heady play to resonate powerful emotions within the audience. Deb Dyer’s set and costumes create a posh yet diminished feel while Anthony Pellecchia’s varied lighting and Dave Wallingford’s exquisite sound design complete this chilling and shadowy realm. While the sound design for the performance showed a high attention to detail, the pre-show and intermission music seemed a little out of place, which made a missed opportunity to really solidify this absurd world.
Countless images, ideas and thoughts flitted in and out of my mind the entire time I watched—nay absorbed—this play. I dare not offer an interpretation because, frankly, too many exist. As an obscure example of Theatre of the Absurd, the show provides many moments for laughter amongst the many words; however, the drama and drive make this a powerful piece of art that conjures up thoughts of nearly anywhere due to its philosophical, economic and political undertones.
The Empire Builders is not the simplest show to understand, and I love that. It is impossible not to feel it though. Bring a friend or two and spend a long evening reflecting, discussing, and drinking in this short-lived but must-see Columbus arts experience.
Photos by Michelle Batt of MadLab Theatre.
The Empire Builders plays until June 22, at MadLab, 277 N. Third Street. Thurs-Sat. at 8 pm. Tickets are $15.
More information can be found online at www.madlab.net or at 614-221-5418.