Setting up a bit, finding a rhythm, waiting for a laugh and, above all, keeping things moving – these are some of the key lessons for students putting on the comedy, “The Engine of Our Ruin,” opening Nov. 16 at the Allen Theatre.
“The characters have to be real people with real problems, says Director and Visiting Professor of Theatre Corey Sorenson, whose numerous acting credits include “Chicago Fire” and “Palo Alto.” “But, in a comedy, if we stop and examine and think and feel about them, we lose the opportunity to get a joke out. This play doesn’t work if we don’t keep things spinning.”
“The Engine of Our Ruin” premiered last year in Burbank, with the Los Angeles Times describing playwright Jason Wells’ work as a “lunatic take (that) is as intellectually provocative as it is side-splitting.”
Set in luxury hotel somewhere in the Middle East, “The Engine of Our Ruin” is a fast-moving comedy about a group of American diplomats who try to broker peace in a Muslim-majority country and inadvertently start a coup. Complicating matters is an interpreter who has her own feminist agenda.
“She’s translating the demands of her country to people from the U.S., and she decides to mess it up a little, to manipulate the conversation to get what she wants,” says Harvey Mudd student Anisha Tandon ’21, who plays Razi, the interpreter. “She instead talks about building schools for women and girls.”
As the American diplomat who has been sent to negotiate peace, Trevor Pontifex ’18 describes his character Charles as well educated but not particularly smart. “His ignorance is where a lot of the comedy comes from. He’s just so blind to the tensions in the room sometimes, and it's been fun to pretend like I don't know what's going on. A lot it of gets lost in translation, and it shows even when you have good intentions, things still go wrong.”
There is a message to the madness, says Sorenson. “Engine has political undertones that reflect what is going on with some of our political discourse, but it also sends it up. Comedy opens us up to see our problems in a digestible way. All of the best comedians are able to shine a light where we don't want to look.”
Sorenson’s direction gives the actors room to maneuver and make their own choices, says Pontifex. “Corey has been so helpful in helping us make sure the audience's attention will be focused on the right person at the right time, and setting up these bits so that they have a rhythm. He also told us from day one that if he ever suggests something that feels wrong to us that he wants us to push back, and then he lets us run with it.”
For Sorenson, a play never really occurs without an audience. “That's the great differential, of course, between theatre and film,” he says. “That live connection is what really what teaches you how to hold for a laugh and how to read the audience's energy.”
Because most of his work as an actor had been in dramatic roles, Sorenson welcomes the rare opportunity to do comedy. “I love comedy, so this was a treat. I feel extremely lucky this semester that this is my job. I get to work with a bunch of students—and they make me laugh all night long.”
Performances of “The Engine of Our Ruin” will be held at 8 p.m. on Thursday, November 16 through Saturday, November 18, and 2 p.m. on Saturday, November 18, and Sunday, November 19, at the Allen Theatre (300 E. Bonita Ave., Claremont). Tickets are $11 general admission and $6 for students, faculty, staff and seniors. The play is 90 minutes, with no intermission.