[Theater Review] Groundwork
Finding meaning has been, and will ever be, the major driving force in entertainment. Amont all the crafts discovered and developed by man, this ongoing search for reason, purpose and achievement, ranks in the top themes and plots for plays, books and movies for generations. We are no closer to uncovering the truth, of course. After all, the answer will always be something private and catered to every particular drama, but that doesn’t mean we will stop trying. As ancient as the search itself, monologues lend themselves for the true purpose of theater: to tell a story. In the monologue’s case: one actor, one goal, one journey. No matter how personal or mainstream, monologues command a special type of attention, a sort of relationship between artist and audience that leaves no margin for middle ground. It either works or it doesn’t. Luckily for Groundwork, written by Derek Davidson (director) and Mike Ostroski (performer), its seeds find fertile ground and relevance grows as rich and proud as the vegetables planted on this garden of the mind.
I followed a peculiar journey myself in regards to Groundwork. Having known nothing more than the title and a broad concept – a man and a garden –, the trip to the theater itself, on an unusually stormy night in Los Angeles which flooded the streets surrounding the venue, made me think about the possibilities that Ostroski’s performance could bring. After all, how can something so mundane and offline as a garden be used to bring contemporary issues to light? Even the scenic limitations of having a garden on stage amused me. There were so many possibilities and it was an intriguing experience even before it started. The heavy rain seemed to have fueled all of them under a shroud of mystery.
When a riveting Mike Ostroski (a powerhouse actor in both stage and screen, with credits that include acclaimed TV series Breaking Bad) takes the stage, bringing a series of parallels, meta language – an actor, talking about an actor who feels like a person, and suffers more than many – and a vast array of talents, I was extremely surprised. Ever since the early days of my first theater reviews, I have always feared monologues. You either love them or hate them. And, as my mentor taught me, you can feel it right away. Ostroski has a splendid stage presence and, as any good actor is expected to, disappears in the role, bringing forth something else, something thought provoking and, at the same time, relatable. His character, Paul, a sentimentally struggling actor who decides to plant a garden from scratch is a curious fellow. Well, how else can you consider a man that can link dinosaurs and their subsequent vanishing to his own decisions and hardships? And then use a garden as a filter to give sense to it all? That’s part of the script’s intention, to keep the audience on the edge, always interested in whatever’s next. And Davidson and Ostroski deliver on that promise.
Groundwork is a non-stop, fast paced and involving experience. The amount of subtleties presented by the text and Ostroski’s versatility go well together, interacting with the audience when necessary and diving in the actor’s own ghosts when the time is right. There’s something as authentic as inexplicable at work in Groundwork; maybe it is the inner truth within the script and the social need of a decent debate regarding what’s valuable and what’s not in our lives. Discuss it is not an option. It is mandatory. Otherwise, our presence on this Earth would be nothing but unnecessary and boring.
Of course the garden itself represents the need to find roots and the ever needed meaning in this life, but it goes beyond, because, as any other tool, putting together the garden amounts to nothing if you are incapable of harvesting its fruits or learning from its lessons. And that’s what’s unique about the soul of this play, it allows you to digest such lessons and offers ways to enjoy your garden, whatever form you may find in your journey. Throughout my career, I’ve been resistant to pieces of work that tell the audience exactly how to think or that make this easier by dumbing it down, leaving little room, or no room at all, for the spectator’s own experiences or needs. Movies, books and theater alike can make this mistake when striving for major acceptance. So I’m always watching out for them, alert, vigilant, hoping not to be exposed to more superficial or made-to-be-popular material. Well, after the both funny and hooking opening scene, Groundwork had set itself aside from my fears and the dialogue began.
Dialogue indeed, after all, Ostroski would deliver his lines, and music – with a very welcoming banjo – and I’d fill in the gaps, finding new meaning in his own search for it. The right amount of cultural references were there to remind us that the actor lives and breathes in the same world as we do, and that, well, he may very well exist. Somewhere, out there. I’m sure the character’s many elements, characteristics and traits do exist, not only in Ostroski and Davidson’s writing, but within many real people struggling with their creative sides, or the craving for it; trying to do something that will find not only success, but will also benefit those around them. It’s a big question, I know.
But what would we make out of great creators such as Philip K. Dick, William Shakespeare or Stanislaw Lem if not for their courage and personal need to tackle such questions? It’s common for the youth to look for answers, to pick their paths based on canned opinions and sentences of effect extracted from teen novels. But, eventually, they understand that, sometimes, the right move is to learn how to understand and ask the right question. One question may lead you through a path with many possibilities, while one answer may very well lock you onto a single, unchangeable road. There are many ways to read the whole discussion about meaning, of course, and Groundwork offers you another one. But this script is full of possibilities, for sure.
And Ostroski is extremely capable of exploring them, either in his troubled romantic relationship – dealt with in great simplicity and effectiveness – or in regards to the garden and whatever it generates. The way we treat our victories, and defeats, is very telling about who we really are. We may tell ourselves a different story, we may sell whatever image we choose to project on Facebook, Twitter or at work, however, the truth is in the smallest details, when a single act can mean the world and reveal the essence of an individual. Ostroski’s hopeful actor has plenty to offer and fulfills his part of the deal, opening the door to his garden.
Would you go in?
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