31 January 2016

Hijacked Lives, by Donald Fidler

I was fortunate to see Donald Fidler’s Hijacked Lives in its premier performance, directed by David Beach. Although billed as part of a two-show evening of Existential Theatre, I wouldn’t have called this an existentialist play. Whether it is existential or not, however, the show is intriguing, engaging, witty, and fun.

The story begins with a wealthy older man carjacked by a young man trying to get to Chicago. The curmudgeonly old man—played by David Beach—has cancer and is unafraid to die, but he cooperates with the young man—played by Travis Teffner. As the two drive from Pittsburgh toward Chicago, they come to know one another: the young man’s eccentricities and fears (he can’t take public transportation and hates the yellow-orange of school buses), the old man’s suppressed guilt and self-loathing over his personal rudeness and ruthless fracking business. Through the car trip, meals in fancy restaurants, and nights in nice hotels, the two passengers grow close to one another.

Beach and Teffner have excellent chemistry as performers, having worked together on several previous shows. While both occasionally fumbled lines, their personal interactions brought the life the depth of this story. The closing moment of sympathy between the two men as they begin the long drive home was powerful—without words the two actors penetrated the characters and showed a complicated, reluctant communion between two people.

As individual performers both Teffner and Beach were excellent. The old man is generally curmudgeonly, but there are moments of genuine tenderness, and even a paternal desire to protect the young man. In the restaurant scene, Beach most brought the largely repressed tenderness to the fore, when he teaches the young man how to eat bread sticks in olive oil and parmesan, for instance. While it is a very simple moment, Beach imbued the scene with caring.

For the young man, Teffner was called upon for a wider range of emotions, which he performed admirably. The character ranges from shame after knocking over water and oil in the restaurant, to deep-seated anger when he learns that the old man is a fracking executive responsible for the deteriorating conditions at his grandmother’s apartment. Teffner performed all of these emotions convincingly and his performance was consistently strong.

The set for the show was simple (as is characteristic of the MAC), and the simplicity of the set and the continuity between the performance space and the house—there’s no barrier between the stage and the audience tables—provided a perfect intimacy for a show like Hijacked Lives. The show almost needs the tight shared space of a blackbox theatre because the content so focuses on transcending emotional boundaries—the closeness between performers and audience allows a reproduction of that transcendence as we emotionally connect with the characters.

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