End of the Line

The rollicking storytelling of Theatre Gigante’s “Terminus.”

When playwrights like Ibsen and Chekhov turned their attention to the drama of drawing rooms and other everyday locales, theater gained traction in its effort to deal with “real life.” But it also lost something: its ability to grapple with The Fantastic. These days, such theatrical fantasy is everywhere–singing lions, phantom organists, feuding witches, not to mention the onslaught of extraterrestrials and X-men at the movies.

But in the old days, tales of gods and monsters were spun of simpler stuff: a few planks, some passion, and a flurry of words (hold the stage fog and the CGI).

Mark O'Rowe
Mark O’Rowe.

Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe has said that his journey to playwriting started with a love of David Mamet and Harold Pinter, and his sensibility was nurtured on ultraviolent horror movies, but I have to believe his 2006 play Terminus—which Theatre Gigante opened this weekend—owes something to the ol’ ultraviolence that was a staple of plays from the Greeks to the post-Shakespearean Restoration.

As with Greek tragedy, Terminus envelops us in a world of words rather than explicit action. O’Rowe is known for plays that violate the basic tenet of freshmen comp—he tells rather than shows. Like his breakthrough play, Howie the Rookie, Terminus is composed entirely of monologues—three characters stand and deliver, recounting individual dark nights of the soul that eventually come together in a unifying climax that’s both gruesome and exquisitely beautiful. And like the dramas of old, they speak in verse—not exactly poetic couplets, but a kind of hip-hop inspired language of charged rhythms and frequent rhyme that’s musically alive and vividly descriptive.

terminus
Isabelle Kralj, Megan Kaminsky, Tom Reed

To begin, a former schoolteacher (Isabelle Kralj), who now works a crisis hotline, receives a call from a pregnant mother. Recognizing the voice as that of a former student, she decides to visit her house to offer personal help. In another part of Dublin, a lonely young woman (Megan Kaminsky) gets a call from a friend who invites her out for some drinks. And elsewhere, a lonely man (Tom Reed) decides to stop at a neighborhood dance to find some companionship. Relatively mundane beginnings, to be sure. But these are only the first steps in a wild, violent and otherworldly journey that includes an encounter with a sadistic gang of lesbian toughs, a Faustian bargain gone sour, a battle royale between winged devils and angels, eviscerations, construction site sex acts, and a car chase with a visceral wallop that rivals the most pulse pounding scenes of Mad Max.

It’s all told, not shown. But told by actors who capture the wonderful music in O’Rowe’s muscular language. Not surprisingly, they are directed by Gigante’s Mark Anderson, whose solo work is known for its carefully wrought, aurally compelling storytelling. Here, he and his actors have found the perfect companion in O’Rowe, a brother-in-aesthetic-arms from another planet with a vision of life, death, good and evil that keeps you hanging on every melodious phrase

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Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.