Chosen because it features an incredibly diverse cast of characters and a political spirit ripped from the headlines, “Anon(ymous)” is a 21st century retelling of Homer’s “Odyssey,” the epic familiar to all students at Harker’s upper school. In place of Odysseus is Anon, who wanders across America, from the beach house of a wealthy congressman where he has washed ashore to the kitchen of a drunken, one-eyed cannibal with an operatic songbird. Along the way, he frolics in the ocean with a goddess, races through sewage tunnels past afflicted drug addicts, and crashes a vehicle of trafficked people. His adventures are told in a theatrical style that borrows from traditions all across the world: a Bollywood dance number welcomes Anon to a friendly Indian restaurant, and Balinese shadow puppetry conveys a flashback of Anon and his mother.
The production is replete with these ultra-theatrical moments. In one instance, enormous hoops suggest an underground system of tunnels that Anon and a companion bolt through like a maze. Undulating teal cloths form frothy ocean waves, into which Anon and his goddess dive, only to resurface elsewhere in the current to share a watery kiss.
All the while, the audience is ever-present. Director Jeff Draper has split his audience in two, on either side of a long runway, facing each other. Reflecting the blue light which beams down onto the runway, a sea of the audience’s eerie, aquamarine faces is a constant presence behind Anon, implicated witnesses to his exhausting journey.
When we first meet Anon, he is with the spoiled and ebullient daughter of a smug congressman and his yoga-obsessed trophy wife, who, despite an anti-foreigner attitude, have taken Anon into their home, offering him food and shelter. The sugar-high, smartphone-clad daughter, played with side-splitting comic aplomb by Shenel Ekici, grade 12, has taken a fierce fascination with Anon. Indeed, how could she not? As she is keen to announce, “Exotic is very in right now.” But Anon, feeling himself a novelty, very far away from his real home and real family, is unmoved and out of place. When a beautiful goddess who reminds him of his roots emerges from the ocean, he is all too relieved to leave the shelter he has been granted on the beach and join the goddess in the abyss of the waters.
That launches Anon into his adventure across the United States. A storm separates him from the goddess, and when we meet him again, he is scavenging for food in the garbage outside of an Indian restaurant. Once again, he is offered shelter, and the goddess revisits him to egg on his memory of the cataclysmic event that parted Anon from his mother: the two had fled their war-torn country on a boat, which was torn asunder by a storm at sea. That’s right, even in a year without Shakespeare, Harker gets a play where a shipwreck breaks apart a family.
Next thing we know, Anon is in the underground tunnels, racing with a new friend, Paco, from immigration police. The two escape on a boxcar and finally find themselves searching for work when they encounter the one-eyed butcher Mr. Zyclo, the updated cyclops equivalent, rendered with delicious sophistication by Damon Aitken, grade 12, whose every word drips with intoxicated erudition. Mr. Zyclo’s culinary sensibilities call for a special ingredient for his sausages: people. The butcher takes Paco’s life first, then comes for Anon, who escapes when Zyclo’s captive bird exacts revenge against her master, tearing out his remaining eye.
Anon slips away, hitching a ride in a dusty, worn-out truck. He’s mid-journey when he comes to a startling realization: the back of the truck is filled with people, trafficked against their will. The conditions are hot, too hot, and Anon fears the captives will suffocate. In what is intended as a heroic gesture, Anon grabs the wheel. His efforts backfire in devastating fashion when Anon crashes the truck. In this moment, the theater is filled with the cacophony of the crash, and an eerie soundtrack backs a chorus of the refugees, spilling out. They tell us their names, their backgrounds, and that they have now died.
This tragedy is unsettling and poignant. In a play of hardships, the sudden deaths of these nameless victims – at Anon’s unintended hand, no less – hits home the hardest. For every Anon whose story will end joyfully, there is a chorus of refugees whose odysseys do not end in tearful family reunions, who never escape their twisting roads of peril except with a final moment of pain. Our fictional Anon is not alone; he is one of many, with names, with faces, with lost families. And our innocent hero now has blood on his hands.
Anon’s story does end happily. He finds his mother, whose sweatshop is across town from the Indian restaurant. This is a story, after all, and serendipity intervenes. Anon’s mother is reluctant to believe he is who he says he is, that her child could possibly have survived, until a song from his childhood begins to put her mind at ease and open her up to the miracle of their reuniting. It is a powerful, and theatrical, conclusion to this swift and swirling epic, which packs a lot of ground into a crackling hour and 30 minutes.
The largest cheers are reserved for spectacular comedic turns from two of the plays’ thickly-accented characters: the jovial proprietor of the Indian restaurant and the snakelike, sleazy, Slavic sweatshop manager. Sophomore Rishabh Chandra’s Ali, the restaurateur, is a delight, boisterous and full of warmth. The sweatshop manager and suitor to Anon’s mother, named Yuri Mackus and played by Jeton Manuel Gutierrez-Bujari, grade 11, is a consummate schmoozer, sweet-talking his guests even as he dismisses concerns about the work environment he has created. When these actors work their magic, it is hard not to crack a smile. Both charm their audience with outsized portrayals, balancing out the oppressive odds facing Anon.
Indeed, for all of the serious matters which challenge Anon, “Anon(ymous)” is a very fun piece. It is a joyful, spirited adventure where harsh reality and mythical fantasy collide. As Anon, Vishal Vaidya, grade 11,carries the play on his shoulders. He is more than up to the task, imbuing the role with dignity, grace and bravery. The production is full of moments that wow, from the gorgeous, elegaic song that begins the play to the shooting of a silhouetted soldier, from the first moment a sparkling blue butterfly puppet constructed in the Balinese wayang kulit style interacts with one of the shadowed actors to the full-cast, show-stopping Bollywood dance number. All of the show’s incidental music was composed by Harker students for this production. The Harker Conservatory does a beautiful job in weaving together disparate elements and many worlds to breathe life into an amazing journey, scoring a stirring triumph with Naomi Iizuka’s “Anon(ymous).”