by Ernest Kearney
Going into “Complete”, now playing at the Matrix, the program art had me assuming I was attending a “chick Play” – a conclusion that was proven very wrong, very quickly. “Complete” isn’t a “chick play”, it’s an “est play”. Well, sort of.
For the unacquainted, “est”, or the Erhard Seminar Training, was all the rage in the 70’s. Conceived and developed by Werner Erhard, a one time encyclopedia salesman who had changed his name from John Rosenberg. The “est” workshop provided participants with sixty intense hours of confinement, confrontation and contemplation with the objective being a Readers’ Digest approach to personal transformation. Caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly at a pace only possible via time-lapse photography or the training.
Like the Free Masons have their distinctive “tokens” (aka handshakes), “est” had its unique shibboleth: “Did you get it?” A lot of people did, including Cher, John Denver, Joe Namath and Yoko Ono and according to some estimates about a million other folks.
But, as in life, the tide comes in, the tide goes out.
Erhard found himself accused of incest by a daughter and charged with tax evasion by the IRS.* Soon Erhard and his organization were relegated to punch lines on the Carson show, and in 1977 the film Semi-Tough, starring Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson and Jill Clayburgh, which delighted movie going audiences with its pinpoint satire of the “est” training, as well as Erhard himself with a painfully precise performance by Bert Convy as Friedrich Bismark, the leader of B.E.A.T. In 1984 the last “est” workshop was held in San Francisco followed soon thereafter by Erhard’s retirement.
It is to playwright Andrea Kuchlewska’s credit that at the end of the evening the audience didn’t feel as if it had been subjected to a hard sell info-commercial. Far from it. The work she has penned is definitely in the “Big Brain” category. Philosophical concepts and linguist theories abound, but never to the point of pedantry, nor to the point where the audience is lost in a bewildering esoteric fog.
This is achieved through the playwright’s adept exercise of restraint and the play’s firm foundation on the most fundamental of all story lines: “boy meets girl”.
The “boy” Micah (Scott Kruse) and the “girl” Eve (Meredith Bishop) are two students immersed in the study of linguistics who are about to stumble upon the great weakness of language – that it is supremely capable of expressing the most intricate of man’s concepts (“What is a black hole?” “How does a battleship float?”) and yet is utterly useless in describing the most basic aspects of our humanity (“What is love?”)
Kuchlewska cleverly employs their love of language to function as both bridge and barrier between her characters, then thumps herself by laying atop the jargon of the “Training”, a fictional “est” like organization which serves not only as the primary source of conflict between her two characters but also to offer them their one forlorn hope of ever possibly connecting.
To quote the character of Robert Muldoon from the film Jurassic Park, “Clever girl.”
A superior set crafted by Joel Daavid establishes between two imposing stacks of weighty tomes the emotional arena that melds in perfect harmony with Jennifer Chambers’ inspired direction. Like the rarest of artists, Chamber has taken a complex and challenging composition and communicated it with crystal clarity.
Kruse and Bishop succeed in embracing a text that demands not only talent in its performance but intelligence as well. In roles that lesser talents would be buried beneath the demands of, Kruse and Bishop imbue their performances with a robust authenticity that allows the audience to first accept and then embrace their characters.
Scott Victor Nelson personified the “Training” in a performance so finely honed he could almost be suspected of channeling any number of “New Age” gurus from decades past.
The fourth and final member comprising this top notch cast is the talented Tess Oswalt who plays young Eve in flashbacks which reveal her conflicted memories centering on her mother’s involvement with “The Training”.
In this piece it was Kuchlewska’s intention to explore what she defines as “the power and perversion of language”, so the air is thick with the science of syntax and semantics, references to de Saussure’s structuralism, and the comparative merits of synchronic as opposed to diachronic analysis. All of which, needless to say, went spinning off the stage and maintained a holding pattern way above my head. However this in no way impaired the production, as what was first and foremost presented on the Matrix’s stage was the struggle it takes for one to find the courage to shed their emotional armor. For only when we embrace that vulnerability which our souls share in common do we open ourselves to the possibility of love.
“Complete” is a well-crafted, wonderfully intelligent and poetic work, but the power of a play is contained in the emotional truth of its characters and that, I think you’ll find, “Complete” delivers to the max.
*The first charge was recanted and the second proven false resulting in a lawsuit against the IRS which lead to Erhard receiving a $200,000 settlement. There has been speculation that these accusations were part of an effort to discredit Erhard by the Church of Scientology.