Have you ever seen theatre that felt more like a defibrillator coursing electricity through your entire being, rather than the kind that makes (most) people snooze away? Then that is exactly the sensation you will be getting in the Geffen Playhouse’s latest production and world premiere of Ramiz Monsef‘s The Ants, directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh, and starring Hugo Armstrong, Nicky Boulos, Megan Hill, Jeremy Radin, and Ryan Shrime.
Though there are many things to unpack in this play (which we’ll get into in a very spoiler-ridden analysis), the shortened and non-spoiler version of this review is that The Ants is a visceral, heightened horror play that moves along briskly thanks to its smooth directing with an incredibly strong ensemble cast and superb scene, light, sound & projection design (all done by Carolyn Mraz, Pablo Santiago, John Nobori, and Hana S. Kim respectively). Throughout this review, all the photos you see have been taken by Justin Bettman.
Here comes the incredibly spoiler-ridden section of our review so I highly recommend you stop reading as the play is best enjoyed without knowing anything about the story and its characters. The only important thing I do need to let you know is that the show DOES have horror elements, intense sound & lighting strobe effects so if you are sensitive to any of these things, it is best you know this now and make your decisions accordingly.
A breathtaking house on a hill—complete with the most state-of-the-art security that excessive wealth can buy—should feel like a refuge for Nami, whose recent firing and eviction have forced him to crash at his brother and sister-in-law’s luxury home. But on this dark and fateful night, a violent uprising outside leaves the three trapped in what they think is an impenetrable fortress. A horror play infused with darkly humorous social commentary, The Ants asks why we spend so much money protecting ourselves instead of investing in our shared humanity.
Right away, what got me instantly interested in The Ants is that it was a horror play and in the world of theatre, there aren’t too many of those around and if there are, they are not employed effectively. This play absolutely does and thus all the credit goes to the writer Ramiz Monsef and director Pirronne Yousefzadeh for starting it off in a laidback, humorous manner before it goes hard in its horror elements.
(In the picture L-R: The Ants Playwright Ramiz Monsef and director Pirronne Yousefzadeh.)
A good horror play, however, is nothing without a strong cast to carry it off and this is where all its five actors play a vital element in bringing this alive.
This is where the true spoilers start coming in so stop reading now if you wish to be surprised.
Ryan Shrime as Shahid and Nicky Boulos as Nami are undeniably the most (and only) likeable characters in the entire play. They are the heart and soul in the progressively ensuing insanity this play takes on and it is therefore a real shame that Shrime’s character is only in the 1st half of the play. We’ll get into more why later but suffice to say, the themes the play brings up is ultimately weakened (and potentially problematic) without Shahid coming back. It is a testament to Shrime’s wonderful acting that he is so charming, likeable, and downtrodden that we feel so much sympathy for him and his current situation, acclimating and assimilating to a upper white class lifestyle that forces him to change his true name to “Sean”.
Without Shahid in the second act, Nicky Boulos’ Nami becomes the sole voice of reason for the rest of the play. Before that happens though, Boulos delivers in being the obnoxious broke younger sibling and brings in the much needed humorous elements in a very stifled environment. My only slight criticism is that the character’s urban dialogue was laid on a bit too thick in the beginning before it settles in more gracefully when it moves away from that trope.
Megan Hill as Meredith has the unenviable task of being the most reprehensible character in the entire play. Hill, however, does not shy away from it and truly kills it (literally) as the entitled & extremely privileged white feminist who is completely oblivious to the harm she is causing upon her husband Shahid and everyone around her due to said white privilege. Like Nami, my similar criticism is that the “Karen with extreme white privilege” characteristic is played a little too much in your face at the beginning of the play before it becomes more nuanced and subtle as the play goes on. When Meredith absolutely loses her mind in the climactic moments of the play, Hill rises up to the challenge of just utterly making us as the audience hate the living daylights out of her, especially when she activates her house’s security defenses to kill a whole slew of people later on.
Jeremy Radin plays the enigmatic The Pizza Guy and arrives in the second half of the play. This character is perhaps one of the most fascinating and also the most problematic elements The Ants brings to its audience but first and foremost, it must be said that Radin annihilates the role in every single way from being a simple, hapless pizza delivery guy before his true colors are revealed that, undeniably, kept me and the rest of the audience on the edge of our seats. The ability to switch humor to malevolence (and back again!) is sublime and Radin knocked it out of the park with this extremely difficult challenge.
Finally, the fifth character in The Ants is someone you never see in the production but only hear. Hugo Armstrong provides the voice of The Brain, the advanced AI system Meredith has built to streamline her house’s functions to the point that it’s more of a panic fortress suited for the most paranoid. Armstrong also comes through as a rather creepy individual who voices his wish for his community that they should be let in the house and while never physically seen, Armstrong does a fantastic job in making his presence known.
I’m going to turn into a real raging critic on the play’s themes and why I see it’s potentially problematic but before I do, here’s the details you need to know for The Ants and how you can watch it:
Opening Night: June 29, 2023
Closing Night: July 30, 2023
Hugo Armstrong as The Brain
Nicky Boulos as Nami
Megan Hill as Meredith
Jeremy Radin as The Pizza Guy
Ryan Shrime as Shahid
Scenic Designer Carolyn Mraz
Costume Designer Dominique Fawn Hill
Lighting Designer Pablo Santiago
Sound Designer John Nobori
Projection Designer Hana S. Kim
Magic Consultant Dominik Krzanowski
Assistant Director Susanna Jaramillo
Fight Director Julie Ouellette
Dramaturg Olivia O’Connor
Production Stage Manager Darlene Miyakawa
Casting Director Phyllis Schuringa, CSA
Monday: No performance
Tuesday – Friday: 8:00 p.m.
Saturday: 3:00 and 8:00 p.m.
Sunday: 2:00 and 7:00 p.m.
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024
Tickets currently priced at $39.00 – $129.00. Available by phone at 310.208.2028 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.org. Fees may apply.
2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.
Loud Music and Sound Effects • Strobe Lighting Effects • Theatrical Haze
Content Advisory: This production contains profanity.
Age Recommendation: 16+
All Geffen Playhouse productions are intended for an adult audience; children under 10 years of age will not be admitted.
So with this Pizza Guy character, let’s get into the themes of The Ants. After establishing the state of the art technology, The Brain, and the fortress of a house Shahid and Meredith lives in, the play constantly brings up the houseless people situation. By the end of the first act, it is revealed that the houseless population in the United States have risen up as a collective entity to overtake society in a violent coup. The “Panic House” the couple lives in then becomes one of many desired properties for the uprising and Radin’s Pizza Guy reveals his true colors as a representative of said uprising. Considering that the original Night of the Living Dead is repeatedly mentioned and shown throughout the play, one can only assume the playwright was heavily influenced by the George Romero zombie classic.
When it is revealed that it isn’t just a paranoid delusion of Meredith but rather the houseless population violently rising up in real time, I grew uneasy about the play’s message and that feeling persisted to the end of the play. Even though Radin’s Pizza Guy delivers a powerful monologue on how the 1% widens the wealth gap between them and everyone else, I was uncertain if the play was trying to make us feel uneasy about houseless people in general or if the playwright was trying to make us question how the privileged treats the houseless. Whatever it may be, the intentions are muddy at best because Monsef assumes that the only way is through a violent revolution as it starts with the houseless mob taking away Shahid (off-stage) amidst other casualties announced on the news.
It must be mentioned that since the Geffen Playhouse (and most theatres in the United States) usually have white upper class audience members watching their plays, and considering that there are a good number of houseless folks literally right outside the Geffen Playhouse theatre at all hours, the potential reality is facing them right after the show. I can only imagine that many of them will see a houseless person after the show and wonder if they too will stare at them in a “disturbing manner” and worry that violence may fall upon them.
I’m not saying that drastic changes in the world don’t happen without violence as history has only proven this point repeatedly. But if one is to be conscious of where the play is being performed, who the general target audience members are, and the potential panic & misunderstanding it can cause, the play definitely needs to be criticized carefully and objectively.
It’s not quite concrete if Shahid survives after being taken by the large mob of houseless folks as it is revealed that the implant chip that was embedded in his hand somehow winds up with the Pizza Guy. The whole notion of “it was simply given” by Shahid seems to suggest forceful coercion rather than done voluntarily, and thus only points to the undeniable conclusion that he was killed.
The play would have been stronger if Shahid came back unharmed, and thereby revealing that he wanted the leash microchip removed because it was a miserable device that allowed Meredith to track him wherever he was at any given moment. That the houseless uprising was not built on violence but simply because they were fed up being disregarded for so long and rose up together in a non-violent fashion. That if we are to build on the zombie motif the playwright established, Shahid would come back as “changed”, only in that he has willingly joined the collective because society is indeed rotten, flawed, and needs to change. By doing so, it makes the audience question who are the “zombies” and who are the “humans”. Even better, if the houseless invasion was merely a paranoid delusion in Meredith’s head, thus further emphasizing the outrageous fear of the elite white privilege in how they view the disenfranchised.
Or on a more fantastical and sci-fi deviation, The Brain assumes a mind of its own as suggested in the play’s promotional poster which just begs for that robot possibility.
Throughout the play, it makes its own decisions on who they view worthwhile and who are… The Ants. That it was the Brain creating false videos and images of the houseless invasion, just to toy with its occupants’ minds and make them question their own prejudice on how they (and the audience) truly view the houseless.
In the end, all of these possible scenarios are just wishes to calm my uneasiness but the play did make me think about its contents well after the curtain call. I appreciate theatre that provokes, and this one certainly did.. even if I have to question what exactly it’s provoking. The playwright may truly have the best of interests for the houseless, but the play as a whole feels as if it was written from the frightened elitist perspective. Despite its problematic true themes, The Ants is a worthwhile and memorable experience that will certainly leave an impression on you long after the show.