A meeting room full of managing consultants does not seem like an obvious place for a dark and thrilling play, but that is what Aaron Leob's "Ideation", directed in this production by Dan Bain, intends to deliver. Four high-flying problem-solvers are collected together to discuss ideas for Project Senna: an emergency plan should the world become infected with a highly contagious disease, and the only remaining option to save mankind is genocide. A premise like that fills me trepidation; dark themes in a conventional setting can be at once entertaining and insightful but also run the risk of being boring or even offensive in its lack of morality.
It quickly becomes apparent that this play is not treading on eggshells. Hearing the grounded Ted, played by Adam Brookfield, discuss the "disposal" phase of the operation, i.e. what to do with the bodies, is shocking but underplayed to come across as any standard business subject matter. The reaction of his colleagues is both comical and unsettling; Laura Hill's Hannah sucking in through her teeth and tensing, not at the horrific nature of his suggestions but at their impracticality. As it continues, however, it takes unexpected turns, and its characters become increasingly doubtful about what they're being asked to do, and who they can trust.
The writing of this piece is incredibly sharp. Just when you think they have reached the peak of paranoia, it finds a new extreme. On one hand, you can't help but laugh at the sheer absurdity of what they are encouraging each other to believe, but at the same time, the justification for the insanity is so engrossing you cannot help but believe it yourself. Bain's direction is well-handled so that the scenario remains ridiculous and yet believable; at no point did it feel farcical. At it's most extreme, "Ideation" contains some swearing and light fisty-cuffs, and yet it is utterly gripping throughout.
It brought out the conspiracy theorist in me, but the balance of characters means that the play works from a wide variety of angles. Brookfield's experienced and laid-back Ted is contrasted with the alpha-male Brock (Roy Snow, Chicago), who gets an obvious high off of his work and trying to figure out a solution. Shaan Kesha performs as the slightly more reserved (though flirtatious) Sandeep, and his initial quietness only amplifies his own, highly rewarding, meltdown. The highlight of the show in terms of performance is Hill. As Hannah she tries to remain reasoned, but cannot help but get caught up in her colleague's web, and that conflict is perfectly conveyed in her stance and measured delivery.
There were moments during the performance that seemed to have too much time given to them, or otherwise seemed worthless, but as the play came to its conclusion it all intertwined to give the relationships and tensions extra weight. The thrust design of the stage, as well as the decision to make the set one large mirror (adorned with pieces of rather violent abstract art) immersed the audience into the dilemma and the sense of mistrust, as there was nowhere for any performer to turn where they could not be watched.
While it can be a difficult piece to watch, (the ending can be infuriating,) it is hilarious and tense with an undercurrent of commentary on American ambition and efficiency. "Ideation" has an unexpected amount of thought and fear worked into it by all the creatives involved. Despite being, for the most part, a performance of people arguing in wheely chairs, it is guaranteed to have you on the edge of your seat. Four stars.
Whispers from the crowd:
"Very clever play, with great performances. They lifted the play from what might have been too intense and wordy. Overall I thought it was interesting and worthwhile."
(and one I overheard)
"too many words"