Not that there’s anything wrong with Ludacris’s version, but the ensemble at the Overtime has its own ideas about “theater of the mind.” The Overtime’s newest production brings to life the pages of Ryan Dunlavey and Fred Van Lente’s Action Philosophers!, a comic-book series that puts the ink in history’s greatest thinkers, producing an energetic, fact-packed seminar on the search for truth. If the theater’s previous production, Buddha Swings!, was Religion 101, this is your Intro to Philosophy.
Taking a more didactic approach than Buddha, Action Philosophers! presents the lives and teachings of five philosophical heavyweights: Plato, Bodhidharma, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and Ayn Rand. If that sounds about as entertaining as a college lecture, you’re in for a surprise. The play condenses each teacher’s precepts into snappy dialogue and presents them with a modern twist. For example (speaking of heavyweights), Plato — the godfather of philosophy, if you will — is portrayed as a professional wrestler. I could explain why, but it’s all in the realm of form, anyway.
The crew begins by presenting itself as a sort of New Age self-improvement corporation called Philosophinc. We’ve seen their kind before in movies like Vanilla Sky and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As if sensing the ominous associations, they seek to reassure us: “It’s like Scientology, but without the crazies.” Their mission is to open our minds to the richness of the philosophical tradition. It’s a tidy conceit that bookends the volumes of information inbetween.
And what a wealth of knowledge. The script, taken from the comics, doesn’t water down the complex arguments; if anything, it strengthens them by distilling the essence of each philosophy and serving it straight up. Slideshow images add a slice of humor that helps us digest the ideas, but there are moments when the jokes are distracting — the dialogue does enough to lighten the heavy subject matter.
Which is not to say that the script is lightweight by any means. The lines are dense with aniquated language that would be diffcult to read, nevermind memorize, and the cast delivers each passage like seasoned Shakespeareans. As impressive as the ideas themselves are, the actors who deliver them command equal respect. This wouldn’t be possible without a solid understanding of the tenets being expounded. The Overtime seems to have created a true artists’ colony where ideas are discussed and debated as part of the artistic process of bringing them to the stage. Just as Plato envisioned, our community is the better for it.
Director John Poole is the creative force behind that endeavor, and he serves as the C.E.O. of this brain trust. His fascination with the subject is endearingly evident, and his passion for sharing it projects beyond the back row. As an actor (and teacher), his speech and mannerisms are like Alton Brown of the Food Network, who also studied drama before finding his culinary calling. In the heavily bearded role of Karl Marx, the sheer force of his charisma propels the audience through the logical twists and turns of the most influential ideology of the 20th Century. It’s a tad overacted, but it’s hard to be too outsized when the ideas are so big.
Without the benefit of a primer, it takes a while to get used to the expository nature of the presentation. The opening sequence on Plato seems to pack too much timeline into too short a length of time, and the transitions from one idea to the next don’t flow quite as smoothly as they should. The subsequent sequence on Bodhidharma, founder of Zen Buddhism, may feel like a retread for those who attended Buddha Swings! I would’ve liked to have seen a different philosopher profiled instead, for that reason; the comic-book series includes dozens. My favorite sequence (a sentiment shared by the audience, judging by applause) belonged to British libertarian John Stuart Mill. I won’t spoil the inspired set-up, but I have to cheer for Roy Thomas’s perfect performance as pop culture’s most beloved blockhead. The pursuit of happiness has never been so animated.
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