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This Play Seems Spontaneous. Is It? Why "All The Rage" needs to seem improvised

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

All the Rage is a traditional play: It's scripted and rehearsed, and give or take a few details, it's roughly the same every night.

But when it's working, it makes us forget all that. We're seduced into thinking it's a spontaneous confession.

Now playing at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, All the Rage is an autobiographical solo piece written and performed by Martin Moran, who had an Obie-winning hit in 2004 with The Tricky Part. That play detailed his childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a camp counselor, and in the new show, Moran deals with the aftermath of that story.

We learn, for instance, that many people wondered why there was no rage in the first play, no sense of fury or vengeance.  And that gets Moran thinking about the value of anger and forgiveness. Moving around a simple stage that looks designed for a classroom lecture---there's a globe, a slide projector, and a chalkboard---he guides us through his work with asylum seekers, his time in Broadway musicals, and his surprising African holiday.

He seems like he's telling this story for the first time. Sometimes, he pauses or stumbles over a phrase, like someone just thinking of an anecdote, and sometimes he laughs at his own jokes, as though he's never heard them before. And the ramshackle set makes his spontaneity even more convincing. It's like he pulled in some slides and pictures just that morning, because he figured we might be interested in seeing them.

That's exactly the point. "It's really a big slight-of-hand, because of course there's a writing process that can be quite detailed" says director Seth Barrish, who also helmed The Tricky Part. "It's ultimately scripted down to the word."

Barrish says that a large part of his job is serving as a "watchdog" for moments that feel too prepared. "I'm asking, 'Does that feel to me like it's written? That's with regard to text, the way a line is phrased, and also behaviorally, the way he moves. The same thing is true with staging and design concepts: Are we supporting this without being in the way of the illusion that this is all just free association and coming up with things in the moment?"

Barrish and his team have some sly tricks to make us forget we're at a scripted show. Even though the lights were designed by Russell Champa, for instance, Moran himself turns a lot of the instruments on, like it's just occurred to him to use a lamp.

And then there's the very first moment, when Moran steps on stage and talks about the day's weather and mentions the theatre by name. That's an old theatrical conceit---a way to make the audience feel like they're having a conversation with a real person, not a fictional character.

Talking about those opening remarks, Barrish says, "Those [details] are very here and now, and this is designed to create this 'slide in,' so that you're sucked into the story without steeling yourself for 'the beginning of the story.'"

Eventually, of course, we do realize the story has been structured all along. Near the end of the show, certain phrases and images get repeated in a powerful way. Details that seemed unimportant forty minutes ago suddenly become the lynchpin of a sweeping metaphor.

But why introduce those details so subtly? Why not highlight them every time they appear? Why let us think they're just flotsam in an off-the-cuff experience?

"The things that have had the greatest impact on me have been directly linked with artful surprise," says Barrish. "And yet when the surprise came, it was laid out in way that made me say, 'Oh, that was inevitable. Of course.' It was not a cheap, out-of-the-blue shot, but at the same time, there was a surprise. We're trying to embrace that concept of thrilling discovery."

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor

Photo by Joan Marcus