Different strokes

There are inevitabilities in this world: the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, Madonna reinventing herself and the Xpress coming out every week. Another sure thing is that when the Immediate Theatre Project announces that they are putting on a new show, it’s worth paying attention.

The best of times, the worst of times: Immediate Theatre Company takes a bit of a leap with the double-bill of On the Verge and Below the Belt, two plays with very little in common.

But one sure thing that is unexpected is that ITP’s new undertaking might be a good fit for a drive-in movie: It’s a double feature. The paired productions of On The Verge, or The Geography of Yearning and Below the Belt is something of a study in finding common ground between two highly different plays, which—on the surface, at least—appear to have nothing in common.

“I think there’s a real energy to contradiction,” says Hans Meyer, who directs both plays. “If you can try to locate your art or yourself right in the middle of the contradiction there’s a real fun sort of heat.”

The “heat” that Meyer is referring to is what happens when two completely different objects occupy the same space. Eric Overmyer’s On the Verge, for instance, tells the decidedly optimistic story of three Victorian women on a journey to “Terra Incognita,” but who instead find themselves traveling through pop culture in the early 20th century. Below The Belt, meanwhile, is a cynical and bitter comedy by Richard Dresser about three men stuck working in a cutthroat corporate office doing undefined jobs and attempting to one-up each other in the face of some kind of danger, which is also largely unspecified. Apart from each cast having three members, and each play being a comedy, there’s really little connection between the two productions.

So why package the plays together?

According to Meyer, the idea came about from the rather simple question posed as ITP was planning its season: What play should they to do next?

“We had happened upon them at the same time,” Meyer says. “I knew On the Verge, and we were looking for plays to do, so I suggested it. We also found Below the Belt, and they were both sort of occupying my mental space at the same time. I realized how much they had in common by being completely opposite.”

Plays being united by their differences is a concept that doesn’t exactly come naturally, and Meyer seems aware of this.

“They seemed so opposed to each other that we felt like the idea of putting them on the same stage in the same night would be really fun,” he says. “They really are polar opposites.”

And he’s right. Laid out as Venn diagram, it becomes clear that there’s very little overlap between the two. Both are comedies with three cast members of the same sex. That’s it. And, what’s more, the thematic differences are striking.

“It’s comparing apples and oranges, except that they do compare,” Meyers notes. He says that On the Verge “has this unbridled optimism to it, kind of like Back to the Future had. It’s also a very delightful—but subtle—feminist play, and the optimism is tied up in that. But Below the Belt doesn’t really have so much to do with the fact that the characters are men. It’s just unbelievably cynical, and I don’t believe that would be as cynical if it wasn’t an all male play.”

The difference in the plays isn’t lost on the actors, either. Meyer says that the cold cynicism of Below the Belt and the upbeat optimism of On the Verge have rubbed off on them.

“The feeling in the rehearsal room is very different between the two plays,” he says.

[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]

who: Instant Theatre Project presents On The Verge, or The Geography of Yearning and Below the Belt
what: A double feature of distinctly different plays
where: North Carolina Stage Company
when: Monday, July 28, through Sunday, Aug. 17 ($15-$20 per show, with a $10 discount for buying tickets to both shows. www.immediatetheatre.org, www.ncstage.org or 350-9090)

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