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The Planet Ant Theatre’s world-premiere production of Hylomorph, by Maggie Smith, is ensconced in a kind of desperate silliness. Director Yasmine Jaffri guides this mash-up of a pair of mundane marriages and a world of scientific improbability with a strongly stylized perspective that plays to the strengths of both. The result is a lightning-speed, fish-out-of-water comedy in two short acts that resolves little and explains less, but abounds with thematic curiosity.

Something out of Alice in Wonderland, the story of the play seems intentionally obtuse and difficult to describe in precise language. In barest terms, Mrs. Wilson (Inga R. Wilson) is hired to tutor Mrs. Nara (Linda Ramsay) in English, but instead they are transported to a wasteland that may not even be of this dimension. The best explanation Smith seems to provide for the phenomenon is: science. However, what the characters (and audience) discover about their surroundings isn't nearly as interesting as what they learn about themselves. From their character names to their defining traits, the subservient wives define themselves by their husbands — if he insists she's agoraphobic, then she doesn't leave the house. In this respect, Ramsay’s dawning awareness is the biggest and most identifiable development, played with a balance of level-headed reason and a comically destructive streak. However, it’s Wilson who is the most consistently and subtly funny, a maniacally repressed housewife in constant terror of the possible, albeit implausible, atrocities she could perform at any instant. So afraid of everything she can’t manage to do anything, her Mrs. Wilson anchors the pair of lost women as a clear and relatable protagonist, able to elicit both laughter and affection by her pasted-on smile and deeply apologetic outbursts.

While their wives are on adventures through the rabbit hole, Misters Wilson and Nara (Steven O'Brien and Samer Ajluni, respectively) are shown trying to make sense of their disappearance. Jaffri stages the men’s scenes as something between kabuki and slapstick, manifest in long pauses for reactions and rubber-faced playfulness that gets frequent laughs from its well-matched partners. Although it complements the oddness of the script, the overwhelming unreality of the husbands’ characters doesn’t always gel with the more faceted and sympathetic portrayals of the wives — their separate scenes, coexisting on Milan Filipec’s boundary-light set, can begin to feel like excerpts from different productions. In the long run, however, the men do the work they’re intended to, examining how each husband’s perception of his spouse runs defiantly contrary to the tenets of his chosen science. The motivations of love and partnership, the play seems to argue, are more difficult to explain and justify than the most abstract of -ologies.

The production’s aim to be so crazy that it must be serious is given loads of support by legions of sound and video cues by designers Dyan Bailey and Mikey Brown. Everything from visual representations of time/space vortices to simple, placid plumes of cigar smoke is projected onto one wall; the stimuli — often in harmony with a rainbow assault of lighting by Kevin Barron — carries over into pre-show and intermission, featuring juxtaposed mushroom-cloud imagery and standards soundtrack that invokes Dr. Strangelove. The subject matter relates to an early fixation on the bombing of Hiroshima, in which Smith further indulges by using Japanese characters whose self-consciously stereotypical mannerisms are played for laughs. Here, the prevailing overblown feel helps to keep the viewer from taking offense, and additional layers are added in due time. Kirsten Bianchi’s all-in costuming completes the otherworldly look with an agreeable blend of realism and artifice.

Alternately comic and contemplative, splashing around in pseudoscientific gibberish while ever-so-cautiously dissecting two marriages, Hylomorph defies description, instead indulging in themes of identity, love, mental health, and science. Yet even as the physical reality of these quirk-heightened strangers becomes warped beyond recognition, their emotional reality provides a relatable undercurrent to which the viewer can hang on throughout this wild ride. Amped-up production values are necessary to anchor the play in its impossible setting, but fine seriocomic performances allow the developments to feel eminently likely on top of their humor, and Jaffri has delicately bridged these disparate sensibilities into a single comedy, the likes of which audiences will seldom see and almost certainly remember.


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