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The Arts
April 5-11, 2006

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'Tales of the Lost Formicans'

Skewed: Ann Kuchins and Dan Roach are subjects for some alien observations in 'Tales of the Lost Formicans.'

Lost, But Not Forgotten

Pear Avenue Theatre looks at life from an alien's perspective in 'Tales of the Lost Formicans'

By Marianne Messina

IT IS always fun to imagine the absurdities of human civilization stripped of context—as seen from the outside. For example, an alien watching a film clip of streaming traffic might see the cars as "wheeled sarcophagi used to carry spirits to the next world"—at least if he's the chief alien (Mike Reynolds) in Tales of the Lost Formicans, playing at the Pear Avenue Theatre. The alien's notion is not so far-fetched, considering that a car's value is based on an assumption alien to any plantlike being: that mobility is a good thing.

At its best, Constance Congdon's play inspires such perception teasers, and its quirky skew on a three-generational drama exerts a delightfully disorienting effect. Cathy (Kristene Withekaye), a middle-aged single mom goes to live with her parents, dragging her rebellious teen son (Alexander Nee) behind her. But as she deals with her father's Alzheimer's, her mother's frustration and her own lonely sense of alienation, Cathy's story is presented as a formal demonstration or exhibit mounted by the chief alien—that would be the bug-eyed guy (the Formicans wear these oversized sunglasses) with the large, loud remote clicker. That baby lets him "forward," "rewind" and "pause" the characters' lives, like holo-recordings.

Thanks to incredible sleight-of-tongue by the cast, "rewind" creates some great-sounding backward-speak, starting with Dan Roach as Cathy's Alzheimer's-addled father. As theater-in-the-round, the action takes place on a circular, landing-pad stage (like the view through a microscope, as director Rebecca J. Ennals pointed out in a Sunday talk-back session) and along its four runways. In the small Pear theater, this means that audience members become the backdrop for other audience members, supporting the play's suggestion that the difference between alienation and community is only a shift in perspective.

When Judy (plucky Shannon Stowe) introduces Cathy to the suburban Colorado neighborhood, she is constantly revising the way Cathy sees it, ticking off selling points with a Realtoresque eye. Cathy sees a beautiful hill; Judy sees "just leftover dirt from something else, not as if it's a real hill." Cathy sadly contemplates the suicide that happened in a nearby home; Judy rambles on, "He lay there [in his blood] all afternoon—say goodbye to that wall-to-wall carpeting." As estranged as the Formicans are—the chief alien thinks the gap between backrest and seat on a kitchen chair has symbolic meaning—there is some truth to their observations: "What they call community is in fact random habitual clustering."

But the play moves toward bridging the alienation by way of sharing commonality. Cathy and Judy end up bonding over their bad experiences with men. Cathy gradually connects with bonkers conspiracy theorist Jerry (a cuddly frantic Troy Johnson) in their mutual loneliness. Even the aliens try to make things better for the enigmatic humans. The play may lack consistency and a tight alien construct, and ultimately, it sacrifices some warmth to its playful obsession with the meanings of "Lost Formicans" (lost era, lost connections, lost/bewildered humans, lost aliens, etc.). But it makes up for most of this in creativity.

The high points in this production include a choreographed scream fest between mother (Ann Kuchins) and daughter, talking over each other as they circle the (Formica) table to synchronized pauses. Impressive timing, that. And the brilliant rupture of theater world when the cast sings the wistful child's tune "Crocodile Night" somehow creates a space for mystery—the place from which to observe like an alien.

Tales of the Lost Formicans, a Pear Avenue Theatre production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through April 9 at the Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Avenue, Unit K, Mountain View. Tickets are $10-$20. (650.254.1148)

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