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"Annapurna" is the kind of theater this city needs more often.

Theater Review: "Annapurna" at Blackfriars 

Climb the mountain

Before the house lights go down on any Blackfriars Theatre show, artistic director Danny Hoskins says a few words in what is becoming a new tradition. "If you like this show," he says, "go tell everyone about it after you leave tonight. Knock on your neighbor's door when you get home and tell them to go see it." And if you don't like it, "tell everyone you went to Chili's tonight." Hoskins calls this the "pact."

It's a humorous way to start a show, but it's refreshing in many ways. Blackfriars is in the midst of big changes this season, and it is taking initiative to not only perform for their audience, but to build a community around the theater. Blackfriars is also taking risks with many of this season's shows.

"Annapurna" debuted in 2011 at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco and opened off-Broadway in 2014 starring Megan Mullally (best known as Karen on TV's "Will & Grace") and Nick Offerman (best known as Ron on "Parks and Recreation"), a real life couple. The play was likened to a "scruffier version of a Lifetime television movie about love gone wrong" by the New York Times, but that seems a discredit to the 90 minutes of commanding human interaction that happen in this play.

Ulysses hasn't seen his ex-wife, Emma, or their son, Sam, since they fled in the middle of the night 20 years ago. The once famous poet now lives in a ramshackle trailer in the "ass-crack of the (Colorado) Rockies" -- and that's where Emma shows up one day, luggage in tow. What follows is the distillation of a relationship that ended on paper 20 years ago but still continues in heads and hearts.

Playwright Sharr White (who also penned Broadway's "The Other Place" and "The Snow Geese") named the play for Annapurna, a group of mountains in the Himalayas and one of the most dangerous in the world to climb. Ulysses eventually reveals he has been working on an epic poem about Emma, titled -- you guessed it -- "Annapurna," inspired by a story he read about expert French alpinist Maurice Herzog, who lost parts of his toes and fingers after he dropped his gloves during descent. Like Herzog, Ulysses has a (metaphorical) glove drop in his life -- the night Emma left with their son, Sam -- and the mystery surrounding that night provides the underlying suspense in the play.

The power of "Annapurna" could easily be lost with the wrong direction or cast members. The level of trust required for a two-person show is painfully high, but director (and costumer) Patricia Lewis Browne and her cast, Rick Staropoli (Ulysses) and Kerry Young (Emma), are up for the task.

"Annapurna" is full of vulnerable moments that require dedicated, focused performers. Staropoli spends the first few minutes of the play in the nude, wearing only a greasy apron around his waist and a backpack used for oxygen (his chain-smoking character has recently been diagnosed with emphysema). Young showers during the play and performs with wet hair. Both characters go through states of dress and undress. For a progressive theater town, these realist moments are still fairly rare on Rochester's stages -- it's impressive to see local actors performing them flawlessly.

Designer Roger Budnik's set -- a trailer shell -- provides an anchor for the realism, complete with working faucets, shower, and electricity. And NicMinetor's lighting design provides a seamless transition from mid-morning to early evening.

But it's the connection between Young and Staropoli that brings everything together, enabling the audience to look beyond any set pieces or sound effects and lose themselves completely in the story. Young is well known in the theater community for her leadership activity and improvisational work, but it's in a role like this that she absolutely stuns. Young and Staropoli master contextual dialogue, complete with sarcasm, awkward silences, and intimate glances. Staropoli, a former attorney and current voiceover artist, employs his vocal skills to affect the rasp and coughing fits of weak lungs, and delivers the perfect antihero in Ulysses: a gruff and dirty recovering alcoholic with the occasional glint of charm and sensitivity.

Put simply, "Annapurna" is the kind of theater this city needs more of -- new, raw, and expertly acted. No, it's not a classic revival or a popular seat-filler; the most daring things that happen onstage don't involve wild dance numbers or gratuitous death scenes. Those things have a place, to be sure. But "Annapurna" taps into the pulsing vein of collective humanity, pointing spectators inward as the audience relates to the characters on a deeper level.

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