Directed by Pam Myers-Morgan
Production Manager - Terri Ferguson
Production Stage Manager - Jordan Willis
Assistant Stage Manager - Alett Gray
Assistant Director - Reis Myers McCormick
Set Design - Christopher Jenkins
Lighting Design - Jaymes Gregory
Costume Design - Ryan Matthieu Smith
Sound Design - M. Graeme Bice
Props Design - Lynn Mauldin & Rebekka Koepke
Board Operators - Bryan Douglas & Lisa Robb
Alethia - Kylie Zeko
Epiphany/Sisters Delta - Tatum Zeko
Honeycomb/Sisters Delta - Wendy Blackburn
Conrad Eppler - Jennings Humphries
Sister Merry Berry - Kateri Cale
Sister Subordinary/Sister Omega Omicron, Oracle - LisaAnne Haram
Mother Mary Extraordinary/High Consul - Ellen Locy
Luce - David Lugo
Lieutenant Kilowatt - David Meglino
Wing Sergeant I - Tamitha Curiel
Wing Sergeant II - Stephanie Butler
Roica - Matthew Clark
Miss Demeanor/Sister Rho Zeta - Miller Pyke
Reviewed Performance 2/10/2012
Reviewed by David Hanna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The trailer promoting Echo Theatre's newest show has a simple tagline: "Who is Conrad Eppler?" It's a take on "man-on-the-street" interviews as person after person explains that they've never heard of this person. It's also ironically indicative of Isabella Russell-Ides' new play. "The Early Education of Conrad Eppler" is a confusing, bizarre, and ultimately unsatisfying play about heaven, earth, and somewhere in between. Despite some strong performances and flashy effects, the show sinks under the weight of its incomprehensible plot and complete lack of believability.
Explaining the plot of "Conrad Eppler" requires the space of this entire review, and even then it's not certain that one can fully articulate the constant sharp turns playwright Isabella Russell-Ides takes in this play. The titular character, Conrad Eppler, is only a small part of this sprawling, two-and-a-half hour play that needs an entire act for the exposition. The world of "Conrad Eppler" is meant for the imagination, with angels on another planet, nuns on the Moon, and Adam and Eve, all making appearances. The story might work as a sci-fi novel or an animated film but on the stage it's mostly exhausting.
The plot isn't the most troubling thing about Russell-Ides' script though. It's easy enough to forgive the flights of fancy the audience sees in the planet Grace where all angels reside and Lucifer is the police of all the angels. What's not forgivable is just how cartoonish Russell-Ides makes the presumed "real" world of Conrad. Our adolescent hero is an orphan with a stuffed monkey, watched over by the wackiest group of nuns ever put together in a convent. The head of the orphanage, Mother Mary Extraordinary, is in a full crisis of faith. One of her subordinates is drinking what we can only assume is communion wine. A social worker that comes to confirm Conrad's identity has 4-inch platform heels, needs an inhaler, and is the most nervous human being that has ever lived.
Russell-Ides draws the "real" world as broadly as her fantasia of angels, making it impossible to relate to any of the characters in the play. Even the broadest of comedies requires some foothold in truth but "Conrad Eppler" doesn't even attempt it until the last scene of the play. The central theme of the play, which is "Earth is the best place for love", is completely obscured by the laborious internal rhyme, the terrible puns, and the obtuse religious references jammed into the script. There is, in fact, a cliched but compelling truth in "Conrad Eppler" but Russell-Ides glosses over it with a superficial sheen of setting and plot.
The cast of "Conrad Eppler" makes the most out of the script with some stellar standouts and generally solid performances. David Lugo is brilliant as Luce, an obvious facsimile of Lucifer. Lugo is pure, unbridled ego, and as smooth and slippery as the serpent he's meant to be. Far too often he's asked to play broad comedy but he brings as much gravitas and weight to the role as he can.
Ellen Locy is also magnificent as Mother Mary Extraordinary and the High Consul. Her performance is grounded and believable even when she's being spun around and lip-syncing a sound cue of a prayer. In the final scene of the play, Conrad gives Mother Mary a paper heart, and Mother Mary suddenly begins to have true feelings again. Locy is perfectly genuine and vulnerable in this moment, able to experience sadness as Conrad is being adopted. Locy is tasked with being the glue that holds this chaotic story together, and she does not disappoint.
LisaAnne Haram also deserves a mention for her great range in performance, managing to be plain and kindly as Sister Subordinary yet wild and hilarious as the Oracle Sister Omega Omicron. All Haram needs is a costume change and some fake eyelashes and she's a completely different person. It wasn't until the curtain call that she reveals her pink nun habit and I recognized she plays both characters.
Kylie Zeko and Matthew Clark, as Alethia and Roica, are decent performers as angelic reincarnations of Adam and Eve. They're both a bit stiff in ingenue roles and don't seem to have a lot of chemistry onstage. Yet they handle themselves with poise and capability and definitely look the part. David Meglino (Lieutenant Kilowatt), Miller Pyke (Miss Demeanor/Sister Rho Zeta), and Kateri Cale (Sister Merry Berry) also give themselves entirely to their parts. Their commitment to their characters and their desire to give to the other performers is admirable, despite sometimes overshadowing dramatic moments.
Then there's Jennings Humphries, the 6th-grader tasked with playing Conrad Eppler, the focal point of the entire show. Humphries is impressive in his ability to keep up with the script's constant twists and turns. He doesn't have quite enough presence to keep up with the rest of the cast though, and can seemingly drift in and out of scenes he's in. It's not so much that Humphries isn't good as the play demands an incredible presence out of Conrad. Jennings gives his full effort to the character and shows incredible potential with a solid cast of well-trained performers.
To her credit, director Pam Myers-Morgan goes for broke in creating Russell-Ides' different worlds in the limited space of the Bath House. She seamlessly transitions between different celestial planes with full justification, making sure each choice reflects back on the play. Myers-Morgan provides some great images and moments to look at, and any failings of her concept are more reflective of the script's deficiencies than her directing.
The designers of "Conrad Eppler" follow Myers-Morgan's lead, bringing as much reality to this unrealistic script. Set Designer Christopher Jenkins blends the wild, swirling clouds painted on the left side of the stage with the austere, arched doors of the convent on the right, clearly establishing the two worlds of the play. Lighting Designer Jaymes Gregory uses rope lights, strobes, and saturated colors to make key moments within the play come to life. Ryan Mathieu Smith's costume design is brilliant and bold but never completely out of line - he goes as far as he can without going overboard. The design staff for the show takes the raw materials and sculpts a unique, fantastic world.
That world, however, is left hollow through Russell-Ides' script, and no amount of design or performance can change that. "The Early Education of Conrad Eppler" is all fantasy and no reality, all metaphor and no truth. There are so many different faiths, concepts, references, and philosophies crammed into the script that it disintegrates into noise and chaos. By the time Russell-Ides makes a real, truthful point through Mother Mary Extraordinary's rekindled passion, the play is over and the audience is left wondering why the rest of the play needed to happen.
Perhaps Russell-Ides is simply taking a flight of fancy, an irreverent romp, through a young boy's eyes. If so, she's ignoring the incredibly weighty, loaded subjects she's dealing with in religion, angels, God, and love. It feels as though Russell-Ides wants the audience to believe everything is tied up in a nice little bow at the end. Dig deeper though, and you find too many questions that beg to be answered. Where is God among all of these angels? What exactly are the "wheels that turn the universe"? Are we meant to believe that Conrad is one of many saviors of the world? Are we truly self-centered enough to believe that Earth is master over the heavens?
I'm with Conrad when he states, "I don't understand what's going on". After seeing "The Early Education of Conrad Eppler", I'm left wondering one thing. Who is Conrad Eppler? And why does it matter?
THE EARLY EDUCATION OF CONRAD EPPLER
at Bath House Cultural Center, 521 East Lawther Drive, Dallas 75218
Plays through February 25th
Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 pm
Saturday, Feb. 18th and 25th at 2:00 pm
Tickets are $20 online, $25 at the door.
Matinee performances are $15
All Thursday performances are "pay-what-you-can"