Aaron Loeb’s Ideation is a shot to the gut — not a primitive one, but a sophisticated, fine-tuned thrust, as if a Victorian gentleman had whipped the concealed blade out of his ivory-headed walking cane and pierced you through the middle. Except that this play isn’t elegant, exactly. It’s a fast-talking, whip-smart spoof of management consultants that also evinces a certain wistful admiration for their skill in slicing and dicing knotty problems into small and apparently logical pieces and fitting those pieces together in ways that smooth, sanitize or obliterate their misshapen contours. And it’s also an over-arching look at a contemporary world in which you can’t trust what you’re told, the ground tends to keep shifting under your feet, and Big Brother is undoubtedly watching — perhaps from the skies over Europe, perhaps thanks to a tiny filling placed in your tooth at the dentist’s. Although these examples don’t appear in Ideation, the play does evoke such paranoid imaginings, along with icy shivers along the spine. Which makes it perhaps the creepiest comedy I’ve ever seen — though also one of the funniest.
The Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, currently exiled from its regular home at the Dairy Arts Center while that building undergoes a renovation, has made a virtue out of necessity in presenting this regional premiere in two actual conference rooms in two separate locations over four weekends. There’s something about the confined space and flat light of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, where I saw the play, that reinforces the effect of the characters’ soulless management-speak and speeds and intensifies the action, which takes place in a tense ninety minutes as the protagonists struggle with a preliminary presentation demanded by the never-seen big boss, J.D. The parameters of their task are puzzling. Brock, Ted, Sandeep and Hannah are discussing the most efficient and cost-effective way to dispose of bodies, millions of bodies. The premise is that they’re preparing for a virus that could wipe out huge populations; their goal is to save the human race.
When Ideation was first presented, according to playwright Loeb, who spoke to the audience after the BETC’s opening performance, the headlines were about the horrors of Ebola. Now we’re hearing a great deal about the Zika virus, which causes birth defects and has arrived in the Americas. So the premise sounds plausible. But as the consultants’ discussion continues, it becomes clear that they’ll have to figure out how to liquidate the infected people before getting rid of their contaminated bodies.
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Through all of this, there are amusing in-group political maneuverings. Ted and Brock argue endlessly; Sandeep and Hannah are hiding a secret; Hannah also has to deal with Scooter, the outrageously rude young intern she’s been forced to take on because he’s a boardmember’s son and who would rather sit at the table with the boys than recognize a woman’s authority and do as she asks.
The protagonists’ absurd corporate-talk (can they create “self-serve graves,” they wonder) can’t prevent images from leaking through of Nazi extermination camps, famous murderers who dissolved their victims’ bodily tissue in acid, people being forced to dig their own graves before being shot and falling into them, atrocities, genocides and mass murders worldwide and throughout history. Eventually the consultants begin wondering if their work is part of some plan far more heinous than they’ve been led to believe — and whether they can even trust each other. And what about Scooter? Is this strangely arrogant kid really just an intern? But then, of course, they reassure each other, there are also harmless and semi-harmless explanations for their task, explanations they’re soon dissecting as eagerly and minutely as their original plans for body disposal.
Stephen Weitz has directed a swift, energetic and electrifying production, and all of the performances are excellent. Karen LaMoureaux is a coolly collected Hannah — at least until she starts unraveling; Jim Walker’s folksy manner as Ted masks the character’s go-along-to-get-along practicality; Brian Shea rocks the role of loud, excitable Brock; and Hossein Forouzandeh is a very human Sandeep. As for Scooter, Luke Sorge makes him so wonderfully and memorably loathsome that you half wish someone would liquidate him on the spot.
Ideation, presented by Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company through March 13 at MobileDay, 2040 14th Street, Boulder, and March 17-20 at the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, 2440 Pearl Street, Boulder, 303-351-2382, betc.org.