The Ascetic (April 11-26, 2008)

‘The Ascetic’: Step into a mystical, surprising world

by Molly Gilmore
Originally published in The Olympian


When he first encountered “The Ascetic,” actor-director Dennis Rolly of Olympia was excited and impressed.

He was participating in North west Playwrights Alliance’s staged reading of the black comedy by Phillip Atlakson. And three years later, he’s directing the play’s West Coast premiere. The production is a joint venture of Theater Artists Olympia, the alliance and Prodigal Sun Productions.

“We got a phenomenal reaction from the audience,” Rolly said of the reading in March 2005. “At those readings, the audience talks to the playwright and gives feedback on what they might like to see changed.

“Everybody had ideas, but I was going: ‘This is perfect the way it is. This play needs to get produced,’ ” Rolly said.

He is far from the only one to appreciate Atlakson’s work. “He’s had a quite a bit of success writ ing screenplays and has also made some films,” said Bryan Willis of the playwrights alliance. “These past few years, he’s returned to playwriting and is making steady progress with various productions in New York.”

He immediately wished to act in the play, but as things developed, Theater Artists Olympia asked him to direct. He discovered the play about a holy man of the type found on Eastern mountaintops had changed since that reading as Atlakson, a Boise resident, had been reworking it and offering workshop productions.

“I’m really tickled to be directing it,” he said. “It’s much more of a show than I thought I had on my hands. As we go through the rehearsal process, we’re discovering how beautifully written it is, how intricately woven the story is. Things that are said in the first scene come back in later scenes and the climax of the play.”

In the play, a husband and wife go to visit the mystic, who stands on a rock in the desert of Eastern Washington. The husband believes the mystic truly is a holy man, but the wife wishes to prove he’s a phony. What happens is far from predictable.

“It’s about the destruction of this couple’s relationship,” Rolly said. The wife persuades the husband to eat in front of the mystic, who supposedly has not eaten or slept in months. She seduces him in front of the mystic.

“Then the husband gets fed up and goes home and leaves her there,” he said. “She’s talking to the mystic and ranting and raving, and eventually she picks up a rock and hits him alongside the head with it. That’s the end of the first act. It’s really fun.”

Fun isn’t exactly the word that springs to mind.

“There are points in this play where I hope we do shock people – or startle them anyway,” Rolly said. “When she hits him with a rock, it’s a complete surprise.”

Well, it won’t be once it’s in the newspaper.

He laughed. “That’s why I didn’t tell you about the second act.”

Writing, acting make ‘Ascetic’ emotionally intense

by Alec Clayton
Originally published in The News Tribune

Theater Artists Olympia, the “fringe” company that produces some of the more challenging theater in the Pacific Northwest, is bringing Philip Atlakson’s play “The Ascetic” to the Midnight Sun performance space beginning tonight.

TAO boasts of “untamed theater,” which implies something that is less than polished, but this play is thoroughly polished both in the writing and in the production. The story may be improbable, but the writing is literate and beautifully structured.

Atlakson heads the Dramatic Writing Program at Boise State University. He has written, directed and acted in numerous plays and movies, including the off-Broadway production of “The Ascetic.”

A co-production with The Northwest Playwrights Alliance and Prodigal Sun Productions, this play was presented in a Playwrights Alliance reading a few years ago under the title “The Ascetic of Lincoln County,” but this will be its first full stage production. I saw it in rehearsal without costumes, sets or theatrical lighting and with actors still on book. Even under those rough conditions, I thought it was great theater.

A holy man has made the news by standing on a rock in the basalt desert of Eastern Washington for 300 days, apparently without food or water. A married couple, Jerry and Sara, travel to the desert to see this phenomenon for themselves. Immediately upon arriving on the rock in the desert where the holy man stands with his prayer rope, Jerry takes his picture, and then he asks his wife to take a picture of him standing by the holy man, treating the ascetic as if he is not a man at all but some kind of prop set in the wilderness.

Sara is skeptical. She thinks the holy man is a sham. He’s in it for the money (although she can’t figure out how he can make money out of it). And he must be sneaking food and water, stashing it somewhere among the rocks, because it is not possible to survive 300 days without food or water.

But Jerry believes the holy man is for real, a link between past and present, East and West – “our link to how unlinked we’ve become,” Jerry declares with a kind of circular logic that becomes more and more nonsensical as he tries to defend the holy man. He employs the same kind of circular reasoning in criticizing his wife with statements such as “You say things as a way of never saying anything at all.”

The presence of the holy man brings about strange reactions from both Jerry and Sara. They do things they normally would never do. Sara even seduces her husband into making love right in front of the ascetic in a scene that pushes right up to the boundary of good taste without crossing that boundary – an acting challenge that Pug Bujeaud as Sara and Tim Hoban as Jerry handle with grace, intensity and playfulness.

The ascetic challenges their reason, their marriage, their faith and ultimately (possibly) their very lives.

“I have to say, as an actress, it is the most challenging role of my life,” Bujeaud said. It is both physically and emotionally demanding. In the hands of a less skilled actor, Sara would be unbelievable, but Bujeaud’s performance seems convincingly authentic, as does Hoban’s.

The only other actors are Tim Samland as the ascetic, in what might well be the most understated job of acting ever seen in the South Sound, and Paul Gisi in a brief appearance as the sheriff.

“The Ascetic” was described in a press release as a black comedy, which may be at best a semi-accurate description. It is an intense, thought-provoking drama with moments of absurdity. I found myself wishing for a more comedic approach, especially in Gisi’s portrayal of the sheriff, but director Dennis Rolly probably made the right decision in having his actors play it as straight drama.