A slumped middle-age man is in an antiseptic room – a clinic or hospital? We’re wearing protective masks, and with all the airborne illnesses thriving this winter, the beginning of “Infected” seems plausible and topical.
Clearly, he is agitated. However, it’s not external forces that are toxic. It’s the guy himself. We don’t know his name. He’s just referred to as “A day trader in quarantine.”
Alan Knoll, in a mercurial tour-de-force, reveals in manic rants and desperate breakdowns, what is going on internally and what happened on the outside that forced him to be confined to this space.
Under Patrick Siler’s direction, the setting is somewhat futuristic and eerie, but always unnerving. Patrick Huber’s minimal rectangle set is between opposite areas of seat risers, framed in a harsh lighting glare designed by Geordy van Es, basically putting the Day Trader on the spot.
Siler’s unrelenting spotlight illuminates a society infected by greed – aha! – through an intense psychological study of a man in a deep downward spiral. Michael Dorsey’s computer media design adds to the frantic tone.
Try as he might, this guy can’t talk his way out of what he has done. But Knoll, wearing a three-piece suit, begins to shed clothes and inhibitions as he unleashes his pity party. He blames the high-pressure New York Stock Exchange’s environment, and the volatile, hostile trappings are certainly a factor.
But so is today’s super-connected, impersonal, automated virtual world that has warped reality. That’s the message in Philip Boehm’s translation of German playwright Albert Ostermaier. Boehm, Upstream Theater’s artistic director, specializes in presenting contemporary works that may be from a different land but connect us together, making us think about our larger place in the world.
In this intimate space, one-man’s ordeal defines our present stressed-out age, with dire consequences when he alters his values. Siler’s precise and crisp direction confronts the unpleasant side effects of one man’s all-consuming quest for financial success, mirroring many others’ focus today.
The character’s inner turmoil comes spilling out rat-a-tat-tat. Defiant, upset, tyrannical, abusive, panicked, unstable and lost – Knoll runs through a litany of emotions, slipping from one emotion to the next with quicksilver sharpness, pacing like an animal in a cage. He snarls in flashback conversations, curls up in a fetal position after a trauma, and forcefully commands this tiny space.
It’s a masterful, riveting and absorbing performance that ranks among his very best, if not the best in a 40+ year career on St. Louis stages.
One of our most versatile actors, Knoll has such remarkable range — flamboyant as Professor Marvel in “The Wizard of Oz,” mean as a junkyard dog as Bob Ewell in “To Kill a Mockingbird” a ridiculously temperamental actor in “Moon Over Buffalo” and a loyal Eunich in “Antony and Cleopatra,” gliding from musical to drama to comedy to Shakespeare with ease.
Now he can add this horrifying man unraveling before our very eyes in an 80-minute monologue as a pinnacle.
Of special note is the intriguing soundscape designed by David. A.N. Jackson, whose percussion enhances the unsettling atmosphere of the show.
The integration of ideas, daily life, images and sounds helps make “Infected” compelling. Knoll’s haunting work is quite something, a carbon footprint in this year’s theater season.
Upstream Theater’s production of “Infected” runs Feb. 9 – 25 at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grant. www.upstreamtheater.org.