“The Annie Loui Project”

Balmore Ruano/New University

Think back to a moment when you discovered something so special that it seemed almost dreamlike. Did you not attempt to preserve it, revisit it, gingerly keep it in an idealized state? Remember when it lost its luster, when its significance slipped away into nothingness? How cruel is it of reality and time to snatch it away?

Such is the tale that was told this past weekend in the xMPL (Experimental Media Performance Lab) at UCI’s Contemporary Arts Center. Featuring an all-undergraduate cast, “The Annie Loui Project: The Lost Estate” – written and directed by none other than Annie Loui – showcased the near-limitless potential of actor expression in theater.

An adaptation of the classic coming-of-age French novel “The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes)” by Alain-Fournier, “ALP” follows the adventures of Augustine (Alexander Makardish) as narrated by his friend Francois (Jeffrey Salsbury) over the course of several years, beginning in 1898.

Augustine, an adolescent admired by his peers, stumbles upon an estate in the woods where a party is taking place. Though he is a stranger to all, the partiers nevertheless welcome and include him in the festivities. During this lively procession of events, he falls in love with the lovely Yvonne (Alison Boresi) and meets Franz (Jeremy Hohn), the enigmatic heir to the estate.

The party suddenly ends in mystifying circumstances and Augustine returns to school, where he confides his escapades to Francois. He is compelled to go back, but he does not know where exactly the estate is located. The two friends subsequently embark to find it, with Augustine yearning to reunite with Yvonne.

Audience members who had never been in the xMPL before the play’s run knew that they were in for an experience that was to be quite out of the ordinary. From the exposed catwalks traversing all across the ceiling to the number of overhead projectors glaring lights at the sole giant screen situated at one end of the rectangular-like room, it became clear that “ALP” was going to be presented with not lavish set design, but rather with the bare essentials. The entire production had a peculiar stripped-down nature to it, which complemented its reliance on the most fundamental emotions and the cast’s full use of their bodies to move the story forward.

Barefoot and all dressed in similar black and white attire, the cast delivered performances that stretched the very concept of expression. Often working without basic props like, say, a bed or a tree, they took it upon themselves to play those objects, at times becoming both animate and inanimate. Two people would play a horse, with one tossing his head to indicate a horse reacting to his rider’s rein and the other having the character mounted on top of his shoulders. A group became entangled, their bodies twisting together, to become a boulder for the characters to sit upon. At one point, they even played ripples of water, lying flat on the ground and let their arms flow in and out as imaginary stones were skipped across an imaginary pond.

The cast’s ability to personify such animals and objects worked to great effect in the first half of the play, particularly when Augustine discovers the estate. As he steps over and crawls under branches and pushes moss out of the way, the actors responded flowingly and almost ghostly in their movements. This greatly magnified the impression that Augustine was interacting and perceiving the world around him in an idealized, child-like manner.

It is difficult not to admire the cast’s achievements when watching “ALP.” Continually zipping in and out of the shadows to participate in the scene, their passion for the production is nothing short of infectious, and the fact that all of them – except for Makardish and Salsbury – play multiple roles proves just how impressively versatile each of them can be. Individual performances are just as splendid, with Makardish, Salsbury, Boresi and Hohn stripping their characters’ emotions down to the very core, making them nearly heartbreaking to watch.

The story gets quite compelling, especially when it gets to the rather disillusioning transition from the romanticized endeavors of youth to the harsher realities of life. Though it is interspersed with bits of humor, a somber mood pervades throughout the piece, amplified by a nostalgic and sorrowful soundtrack featuring stringed instruments and piano. The characters certainly feel authentic, though further exploring the friendship between Augustine and Francois would indubitably make the production much more resonant.

Just as the actors use their bodies in the absence of props to imaginary world to life, the efforts of lighting designer Ashley Casias and sound designer Joshua Fehrmann make it much more authentic. Sounds, ranging from scampering heard from a floor above to the clopping of a horse’s feet, were impeccably on sync with the action. The lights transitioned seamlessly and subtly from one shade of color to another, and often emphasized a point where the audience should focus their attention on amidst a bustling scene.

“The Annie Loui Project: The Lost Estate” is a rich and reflexive experience for any human who has felt so alive by that special something, only to lose it afterwards. A production that is emotional and unique as this one should be remembered and kept dear, away from the wrinkles of time and the tight grip of reality.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5