Susan Felder’s 2012 play Wasteland, directed by Dallas’ Jeffrey Schmidt, poses interesting challenges for its actors and the audience, and the Oklahoma-based unMasqued Theatre meets them head-on at the Studio Theatre at Stage West.
The two characters are American POWs in separate underground cells in the Vietnam War, and one of them is heard but not seen. The play is a dialogue between Joe (Drew Feldman), the only actor onstage, and another Joe, called Riley (Ty Fanning), and requires the audience connect to Riley strictly through an aural performance.
It’s easy, thanks to the script and the performances. These characters are of two different American experiences: Riley is a Texas boy who makes crass anti-gay jokes. Joe, a Yankee, seems more progressive minded and is optimistic that he and his fellow POWs will be rescued. He speaks to Riley through bars on the roof of his cell, and we hear Riley from the other side of the curtain behind the center rows of the audience in this thrust configuration.
The commonalities, aside from being soldiers trapped in a hostile land, include their love of pop culture. They play games based on their knowledge of Star Trek and John Wayne movies as a way to keep their minds off the situation.
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Of course, there’s no guarantee they won’t die alone and malnourished. While an overwhelming sense of fear and conflict could be stronger in the play itself, Schmidt ensures that we see this in Joe’s face, even when he’s somewhat distracted by his interactions with Riley.
Feldman gives a riveting performance; in some scenes without dialogue, it’s just him engaging in some kind of action, such as exercising. There’s also a palpable sense of powerlessness in a late scene in which we hear gunfire and outside voices, but no one —including Joe or Riley — is exactly sure what’s going on. That Fanning can convey an occasional sprig of vulnerability through all his bluster, strictly using his voice, is a credit to his talent.
Because Fanning comes onstage when the play is over for the curtain call, it might be more powerful if he was also dressed in fatigues, as a fully conceived character, just to add another dimension of believability to the overall experience. Still, it’s a strong showing from unMasqued. Here’s hoping we see more of this group in North Texas.
It’s also worth mentioning that Stage West’s Studio Theatre, which hasn’t been used much for public performance since it debuted in 2013 with the late Jerry Russell reprising Clarence Darrow, has comfortable chairs and its own lobby and box office. This bodes well for Stage West’s upcoming season, which has three studio productions in addition to its mainstage season. And following unMasqued’s appearance there, we’d love to see more emerging companies using that space.
▪ 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday
▪ Stage West (Studio Theatre), 821 W. Vickery Blvd., Fort Worth
▪ $17; $14 for students; $12 for military/veterans