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Eco Village

Film noir twists, sexual complications and violence abound in this contemporary utopia in the wilderness yarn as six idealistic characters seek salvation.

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Zoe Wilson and Arianna Williams in a scene from Phoebe Nir’s “Eco Village” (Photo credit: Michael Kushner)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

Similar to a flatly serious youth exploitation flick circa 1970, playwright Phoebe Nir’s utopia-in-the-wilderness yarn Eco Village, is likeably inept. There’s a hallucinogenic drug dinner party sequence that’s out of late Otto Preminger when he was painfully trying to be with-it that has bursting strobe lights and a female dominatrix in full regalia. The whole thing has a trippy Gilligan’s Island vibe combined with turgid writing and overacting. The elaborate rustic set is spectacular which helps.

You might be wondering how a baby-sitter from Trenton finds herself in the woods, coming down from Amphetamines, about to be framed for murder. Because that’s what I’ve wondered almost every night since.

So says our 22-year-old heroine and narrator Robin during the play’s noirish opening bit at a crime scene followed by flashbacks. Leaving behind a troubled life and enticed by this heralded paradise, she hitchhikes her way to Eco Village. It turns out to be an insolvent farm commune founded by the imperious Ursula. She is a feisty lesbian who became well-to-do as a result of her past remunerative career as a high-powered dominatrix dominating Wall Streeters. Also in residence is her kooky female lover of seven years Sammi, the melancholy artist Jean-Lerois, and the smoldering ex-convict Jake who was physically abused by his father and sexually molested by his stepmother and now smokes pot and drinks a lot.

Gregory Isaac Stone and Arianna Williams in a scene from Phoebe Nir’s “Eco Village” (Photo credit: Michael Kushner)

After signing the Community Agreement containing various rules of conduct, Robin is taken in. Amidst mundane tasks of farm work, sparks fly as Robin and Jake become emotionally entangled. Booze-swilling teenaged drifter Casey shows up, gets accepted but is later thrown out because she’s a thief. Further discord arises as the relationships become even more complicated, culminating in violence followed by a reflective coda. It’s all ludicrous and unintentionally funny.

Such thinly written characters in clichéd situations are a challenge for the actors who all go full throttle with their forceful characterizations. Recent college graduate  Arianna Williams is wide-eyed and appealing as Robin. The scruffy, athletic and personable Gregory Isaac Stone’s pleasing vocal twang enhances his portrayal of Jake. Michael Oloyede’s quiet intensity and rueful delivery do wonders for the role of Jean-Lerois.  Pearl Rhein gleefully swaggers her way through the part of Ursula, has nice emotional outbursts and cracks a mean whip. As the volatile Sammi, pert Lily Davis ranges from sweetly daffy to explosively powering. Sixteen-year-old  Zoe Wilson plays the teenage Casey with prickly realism.

There’s not much in the way of plot other than behavioral incidents and Ms. Nir fleshes out her characters with a bare minimum of biographical details. That would be enough for a horror movie where stock characters get killed off one by one but for a play with aspirations of significance it isn’t.  Eco Village strains to sustain its 80 minute length.

Gregory Isaac Stone, Michael Oloyede and Pearl Rhein in a scene from Phoebe Nir’s “Eco Village” (Photo credit: Michael Kushner)

Before the show begins, the audience views scenic designer Meredith Ries stunning creation. A spacious bucolic vision is simulated on the multi-level set with steps, ramps and ladders representing rooms of the house and areas of the grounds. Hanging twirled curtains of green and gold, forestial rugs dot the floors, one section of which pops open to reveal earth for planting. The residence is filled with wooden furniture and bales of straw are strewn around.

Director Chloe Treat’s diligent staging achieves some neat stage pictures but at times the actors are so far away from each other when conversing that’s it’s awkward making for gaps of dead air. Some of Matt Franta’s violence design is stylized to the point of comical unreality. That’s compounded when police officers burst in wearing Halloween costume-style uniforms for a roundup. Costume designer Blair Bauerschmidt’s efforts for the other characters quite suitably realize them, most vividly the whip-cracking Ursula’s erotic getups.

Periodic drumming, car crashes, other intrusive effects and eerie music are all proficiently rendered by sound designer Josh Samuels. Lighting designer Oliver Wason’s hazy brightness and ominous darkness conveys a wilderness look.

Other than serving as a showcase for its emerging cast,  Eco Village doesn’t make much of an impact.

Eco Village (through February 16, 2019)

The Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.ecovillagetheplay.com

Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission

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Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (622 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

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