Lonely Planet Is Not to Be Missed

48Counter-Productions Theatre Company has a history of choosing relevant plays that create discussion. Their latest production, Lonely Planet by Steven Dietz, does not disappoint. You don’t want to miss this incredible two-man show running through May 7 at AS220’s Black Box at 95 Empire.

Lonely Planet is a lovely statement on friendship, memory and fear in the face of disease. It’s a script full of natural poetry confronting life in the face of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The play is set in 1992, the year AIDS became the number one cause of death for men aged 25 to 44 in the United States according to aids.gov. While HIV and AIDS are never explicitly mentioned, the language makes clear the world the characters are confronting as the play unfolds.  Through monologues discussing maps, the characters illustrate the distortions we choose to see in life, the sweetness of an unlikely friendship and ultimately, that we can’t ignore the world going on around us.

Christopher Plonka plays the part of Carl to perfection. Plonka bounds onto the stage with the energy and articulation of a musical theater major. At first, the affectation and intensity are overwhelming in the intimate performance space. It feels like overacting, on the verge of wearing out the audience before the end of the performance. Instead, as the play goes on, we see it is a deliberate choice on the part of Plonka. We understand that Carl deals with the fear and heartbreak in his life by being relentless happy. Carl channels his fear into a flurry of motion and words that leave him little time to think about the unnamed disease talked about throughout the play, and Plonka does a phenomenal job slowly unwrapping those emotions throughout.

The other half of the cast is Jim O’Brien playing Jody. O’Brien’s Jody is an understated, but equally outstanding foil to Carl. O’Brien counters Plonka’s high energy, with steady pacing, a calm demeanor and a natural presence. At the top of the show, we see Jody’s bemused annoyance with his old friend’s antics. However, just as we begin to understand Carl’s fear, we begin to watch Jody unravel under the same anxieties. O’Brien is subtle in the unraveling, creating a sense of dread in the audience members in the steady stream of emotions that flows across his face.

This production not only brings together a stellar cast, the designers all need a mention here. The play takes place in the interior of Jody’s Maps. Branigan Duguay designed a store that is at once minimal and visually interesting in the small details. Chairs that become important to the plot are stacked out of the way, ignored by Jody until Carl forces him to see them. Globes are everywhere, and the shop has the feel of being dusty and unused. Duguay also does an amazing job as the lighting designer. The lights reflect the loneliness and fear, along with the joy and friendship. The lighting contributes to the actors’ effectiveness, and perfectly sets the mood for each scene. The sound design, by Ted Clement, perfectly places us in the world of Jody and Carl. The phone ringing becomes another character. The costume design was the only question mark. Counter-Productions chose to set the play in 1992, when the Lonely Planet was first produced. While Jody’s costume is a timeless Mr. Rogers-esque slacks and sweater ensemble, Carl appears to be dressed for the 1980s. Nevertheless, the clothes perfectly suit each character’s temperament. The production clearly benefited from director, Michael Ducharme, having a clear vision, and from dramaturge, R. Bobby, doing stellar research.

Many companies would have let a production like this stand alone as a conversation starter. The script is certainly powerful, and the production is outstanding. Counter-Productions isn’t your average company. Instead of wishing the audience well after the show, we were invited to a talkback conversation on the subject of HIV. Facilitated by a member of the production staff, the panel contains experts on living with the disease. On the day I attended, Dr. Amanda Noska spoke about the medical breakthroughs in treatment, and advocate Marc Paige spoke about stigmas around the disease and vouched for the very real fear for gay men in the 1980s and 1990s. Counter-Productions not only shares a beautiful production, but they allow the audience a space to process questions and emotions that may arise. In this, the production company shows it not only cares about a quality production, but it cares about the audience and creating conversation around an often-ignored subject.

In short, Lonely Planet is a beautifully written script delivered by an extremely talented pair of actors under the guidance of a strong director on an exquisitely designed stage. All this, and a thoughtful talkback, too. Do not miss this show.

Lonely Planet runs through May 7 at the AS220 Blackbox Theatre.  Tickets are $20 and can be purchased on BrownPaperTickets.com.  For more information, visit cptcri.com.

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