Playwright: Aaron Loeb
Company: Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company
Venue: Boulder Chamber of Commerce, 2440 Pearl Street, Boulder CO.
Running Time: 95 minutes (no intermission)
Date of Performance: Sunday, February 28, 2016. (Regional Premiere)
If you work in a corporate cube farm, you’ve probably wondered at times how the executives in the corner offices come up with all the crazy ideas that pass for “strategy.” Part of the answer is “ideation,” or, as the rest of us might say, the formation of ideas or concepts. The term “ideation” is a derivative of the noun “idea.” It’s also corporate jargon designed to obscure processes and deflect attention.
The play Ideation is a dark comedy based on the sinister side of commercial endeavors. The script takes an “idea” through all its possible permutations as it is “ideated.” The results are at once very funny and very creepy. Ideation is a creative mix of business jargon, pointed humor and a macabre marketing opportunity.
Please excuse my lack of details here, but it would give away too much to go into the plot twists. It is, however, fair to say that the humor is related to the brain(less) storming that is inevitably derailed by going off on absurd tangents. If you’re a corporate manager who develops strategy, prepare to be skewered by Aaron Leob’s brilliant script.
As for the dark side of Ideation, the message is social as well as commercial. Ideation is a display of how ethics based solely on a return on investment for shareholders is the functional equivalent of no ethics at all. That a product or service might be morally questionable is no reason not to make money (or a LOT of money) by providing it.
The story involves a work team developing a concept for a new service contract. They only have a few hours as they game out the scenarios (or "vision" them), trying to hit on the most efficient yet least visible solution. Along the way, they lose track of their goal as the focus shifts from solutions to motives, conspiracies, and tests of their character. As the clock ticks down, the results become increasingly more insane.
Ideation is a shocking yet elegant script. Both funny and thought provoking, Ideation is social commentary delivered with the sharpness of a razor blade. Loeb games out his creepy scenarios, each worse than the last. Just when we think we have reached the ethical bottom of the barrel, that bottom falls out from under us. Loeb keeps finding new and more repugnant options, challenging each of us to explore our own ethical limits.
Early in the show, the script reveals the problem the work team must solve. I have to admit that when I heard it, I thought it was a joke. Or maybe more corporate jargon. Or that perhaps I misheard the problem. The premise, at first glance, is unthinkable. After further review, however, what seems unthinkable on its face is recast as a blossoming business opportunity.
|Ideation cast L-R: Luke Sorge , Jim Walker, Karen LaMoureaux, Hossein Forouzandeh, Brian Shea.|
Director Stephen Weitz has put together a strong cast and pushed them to credible performances in absurd situations. Due to the Dairy Center renovations, Weitz puts his cast into an actual conference room at the Boulder Chamber of Commerce. It’s a perfect setting for the script, but somewhat awkward for the audience. The sight lines are sometimes difficult, as the audience is seated at the same level as the actors.
Brian Shea’s (Brock) delivery veers from cruel and heartless to thoughtful and focused in a heartbeat. Shea is the darkest guy on the stage; he starts the show by mercilessly taking down an intern (Luke Sorge as Scooter) like a lion killing its prey. Sorge, for his part, bumbles and babbles as his short career is reduced to rubble by Shea’s hatchet job. Sorge has the smallest role in Ideation, with the possible exception of Jim Hunt as J.D, who is never seen. Still, Sorge makes a splash as the inept intern with an attitude and an agenda.
Karen LaMoureaux (Hannah) is the one who actually terminates Scooter, not because she wants to, but because she has to get Shea/Brock back under control. LaMoureaux is the senior executive in charge of a gang of supposed genii who “ideate,” but she’s on the ropes from the outset. LaMoureaux skillfully walks a tightrope trap set by her subordinates, slipping from time to time, but never quite falling off the tightrope.
Hossein Forouzandeh (Sandeep) is brilliant, exotic, convincingly paranoid and perhaps a conspirator. He also has a thing for Hannah. Forouzandeh is a compelling corporate agent, dedicated but subversive. Dating his boss is reckless, but he’s a stud she can’t resist. His male ego trumps his corporate ambitions.
Jim Walker (Ted) is less volatile than Brock, but nearly as dark. Walker gives Ted a veneer of respectability, humor, and likability, all of which covers up his paranoid tendencies. Just when you think Ted is going to be the adult in the room and yank the others back to reality, Walker takes a deep dive into the group's hysteria.
|L-R: Hossein Forouzandeh, Jim Walker, Karen LaMoureaux, Brian Shea.|
This is a crackerjack production, and the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC) can be justifiably proud of it. With minimal sets, limited lighting options, and costumes that are strictly business, BETC has spun an entertaining story that explores our morality in a painful but honest way.
When Ideation is over, you may not have a sense of closure. That’s because, as Loeb and BETC have beautifully explained to us, moral absolutes are theoretical, and arguably useless. Moral dilemmas are authentic, but have no perfect solutions. Ideation challenges the cast, and by extension all of us, to solve a hopeless problem full of moral dilemmas. It's an exercise in futility requiring disturbing choices among evils.
The drama here is real; the comedy springs from the desperation and insanity of the story. Even if you’ve never worked in a corporate environment, you will be disturbed by the ethical challenges and failures that are presented in Ideation. We all know the ethical failures of Enron, the mortgage crisis, and Volkswagen. Those failures had enormous consequences.
I think we should all be glad that Ideation is fiction.
The question I left the theater with though, was “has Ideation perhaps already happened?” I don’t know the answer, but I certainly hope it hasn’t. Unfortunately, though, the ethical crisis in business is all too real. We can only hope that the details of the Ideation story never play out in real time. If they do, it will not be a comedy, dark or otherwise.
BETC has taken this show on the road during the renovations at their usual venue, The Dairy Center for the Arts (recently renamed The Dairy Arts Center).
Ideation is showing at MobileDay, 2040 14th Street, March 3-13, and at the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, 2440 Pearl Street, March 16-20.
This show has adult themes and adult language. The subject matter may be disturbing for young children (and perhaps for some adults).
Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC) has taken a challenge (temporary loss of its stage) and turned it into an opportunity. Their last show (Vera Rubin: Bringing the Dark to Light) was at the Fiske Planetarium. Ideation is playing at two different locations around Boulder. BETC doesn’t limit creativity to the script, the cast, and the crew. They have cooked up their own version of creativity, putting their shows on the road and taking them into various community venues. I know they had little choice, given the situation at The Dairy Center. Down the road, however, I hope they make more such choices for creative reasons. Bringing theater to the people is as important as bringing the people to the theater.
PRE/POST SHOW RESTAURANT SUGGESTION:
It’s Denver Restaurant Week, so we combined a special event for dinner after the Ideation matinee. We had never been there before, so we got a 6:45 reservation at Shanahan’s Steak House, 5085 S. Syracuse Street in the Denver Tech Center. For those who aren’t sports fans, Shanahan’s is former Denver Bronco’s Head Coach Mike Shanahan’s place. I’m sure the current Broncos still frequent the place; it’s a very convenient short ride from their Dove Valley training facility.
|Restaurant week 6 ounce filet.|
It’s a high end steak house. You know that when you drive up and they have valet parking (complimentary) so you don’t have to actually park your Honda Civic yourself. The restaurant week special is a 6 ounce filet or pan roasted Scottish salmon. It includes salad, a veggie, garlic mashed potatoes and dessert (Espresso Chocolate Mousse with raspberries). We both had the filet, which was delicious, but at 6 ounces, I’m pretty sure none of the real Denver Broncos order it. The service was exemplary. One thing I watch for in high end restaurants during Restaurant Week is any indication that they look down their noses at the bargain diners (us). Not a hint at Shanahan’s. We were treated like Bronco royalty.
While you’re waiting for your table, check out the Bronco Bling in the display cases near the hostess stand. There are a couple of Vince Lombardi trophies (also known as Super Bowl trophies), and some very impressive Super Bowl rings. This is as close to that kind of memorabilia most of us will ever be. Yes. I took an iPhone pic of the bling.
Photo Credit: Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (Bronco Bling and dinner by the author).
This show closes on March 20, 2016.
Director: Stephen Weitz
Production Designer: Andrew Metzroth
Costume Designer: Brenda King
Dialect Coach: Gabriella Cavallero
Dramaturg: Heather Beasley
Stage Manager: Karen Horns
Hannah: Karen LaMoureaux
Brock: Brian Shea
Ted: Jim Walker
Sandeep: Hossein Forouzandeh
Scooter: Luke Sorge
J.D.: Jim Hunt (Mr. Hunt’s role is performed entirely off stage.)