Theater review: Buncombe Tower at The Magnetic Theatre
It took a while for me to figure out that Buncombe Tower, the world premiere play by local author Peter Lundblad now at The Magnetic Theatre, is a comedy. It’s absurd from the get-go, certainly, but it takes a while to build up some comic steam.
As you might guess from the title, the play has something to say about the state of Asheville, circa 2019, although it’s set in a parallel universe “Buncombe” where the metropolis is called Wolfe City, after its most famous author. References to new hotels, local beer, the BB&T building and other totems let us know that Wolfe City is our familiar home, reimagined.
The play opens with a shadow-puppet fable and offers several more such interludes as it progresses, signaling that the story onstage is equally allegorical: A beloved mayor, credited with both saving and exploiting Wolfe City, has just died — her oversize, crate-like coffin is onstage — and there’s a power struggle going on between the earthy folks attached to the city’s funky roots and the developers wanting to monetize the future. (Sound familiar?)
The earthy folks are represented by Norma (Lindsay Lee), who shows up at an apartment occupied by Bert (Corey Parlamento), along with that coffin and a lot of unappealing piles of junk. Bert is at his wits’ end over the mayor’s death, the impending demolition of the apartment complex in which the play is set, and other reasons that I didn’t grasp well enough to summarize. Lee is chatty and arch; Parlamento is fretful and distracted. They’re meant to be aggravating one another’s soft spots, but — save for a bit about a severed finger — their modestly engaging interactions are thin on humor and beg for a clear explanation that isn’t forthcoming.
As allegories go, I’d call Buncombe Tower generously interactive. Lundblad doesn’t direct you how to interpret his play as much as present threads of thought and impressions from which you can infer a message of your choosing. Perhaps I’m too lazy a theatergoer for this approach, as I left the show not knowing what my takeaway should be. Native culture, good. Exploitation, bad. Beyond that, not sure.
Fortunately, the second act gives free rein to the malevolent Ruthie (Marlene Thompson), a power-hungry city official who grabs ahold of Buncombe Tower’s absurdist heart, squeezing and shaking it to wring out the laughter that was previously bottled up. As Thompson takes control of the stage, strutting and crawling across that coffin with the coiled intensity of Kate McKinnon acting out a revenge fantasy, Buncombe Tower comes to life and carries through energetically to a well-set-up comeuppance.
I’m not sure what director Katie Jones could have done differently to raise the wattage before Thompson’s delayed appearance; the characters of Norma and Bert are neither strongly comic nor dramatic and need Ruthie’s madness to juice the proceedings. A fourth character, police officer Bill, is purely functional — he’s there as a conversational backboard and occasional plot mover — and gives neither actor Jay Allen Ponton nor director Jones much to work with.
Buncombe Tower is an off-kilter love letter to Asheville and its Appalachian roots, and theatergoers who share that affection may find its local topic-dropping satisfying and entertainingly ridiculous. Audiences just need to be prepared to parse its full meaning with only minimal guidance from the text.
Buncombe Tower is playing through June 2 at The Magnetic Theatre Company. Visit themagnetictheatre.com for details and tickets.
(Photo: Courtesy of The Magnetic Theatre Company)