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Arts and Entertainment

'Cassiopeia' Reaches For The Stars, But Is Left Grasping At Air

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I've come to the inescapable conclusion that a lot of the shows I'm covering these days fall into the capacious category of "a great production of a disappointing play." This is, unfortunately, yet another of those reviews. On the positive side, the world premiere of David Wiener's Cassiopeia by The Theatre @ Boston Court has clever direction, exquisite production design and two terrific lead actors. The downside is the play itself, which features moments of lyrical beauty and strangeness, but is finally a structurally self-indulgent meander through the psyches of some familiar theatrical tropes.

Two adults sit next to each other on an airplane. Odetta (Angela Bullock), an African-American woman, is nervous about her first plane trip and tries to start a conversation with white scientist Quiet (Doug Tompos), who wants to be left alone to work out a new theory on his napkin. Odetta has an odd feeling she's met Quiet before, although he denies it. As the flight progresses, the two separately remember their pasts and gradually their connection is revealed.

Bullock and Tompos do heroic work, managing to offer compelling portrayals while also gamely delivering repetitive poetical pronouncements that never quite cohere into meaning, such as "Gravity is the only law" or "I got little girl feet." Bullock has the harder task, essaying a character that seems cobbled together from Southern clichés, but her strong and clear talent galvanizes the text into something moving and human. Tompos plays the stereotypical "scientist who doesn't understand people but finds comfort in equations" to a fare-thee-well, a confused sense of hurt underlying everything. PaSean Wilson displays a powerful and lovely voice as the appropriately named The Voice, but the playwright's use of vocalizing to segue from sequence to sequence adds pretension to a show that doesn't require more.

Director Emilie Beck seems to be in extraordinary sync with her design team, creating any number of subtle grace notes during the show, but her reveal of a river between the two characters as the long blue train of a dress being drawn across the stage by The Voice is particularly satisfying. Stephen Gifford's set, Jeremy Pivnick's lighting and Jack Arky's sound design combine seamlessly into the perfect theatrical location for this intellectual play, a place both starkly symbolic and delicately ephemeral.

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Playwright Wiener originally wrote this piece more than a decade ago for famed avant-garde actor/director Joseph Chaikin, who passed away before the show could be produced. The question then is if the play works on its own merits and not just as a specific project for a particular performer. Unfortunately, even with the many strengths of this current production, the answer to that question is no.

"Cassiopeia" plays at the Main Stage at Boston Court Performing Arts Center through Feb. 24. Tickets are available online.