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Jordan Sobel (right) tries to comfort Jim Jorgenson in Amphibians’ Northside Hollow.

What’s red, played, and broken?

The answer to that riddle comes by way of a dozen enigmatic dialogues between two characters trapped in a mine in Northside Hollow. First produced in 2015 at the Harbor Stage Company in Wellfleet, Mass., the second-ever production of the play opened at Amphibian Stage Productions last Friday. In keeping with the kind of dark absurdism Fort Worthians count on finding from The Phibs, the rare, immersive quality of this play draws audiences down into the pitch-black crevices of a mine and a mind fearing death.

Trapped in the rubble after the collapse, miner Gene (Jim Jorgensen) pleas for help between hysteric bouts of hollering and singing. The audience waits between periods of inky silence for an uncomfortably long time with Gene, who can’t be seen, only heard, just long enough to lose a sense of time and also control of any preconceived expectations. At last, Gene hears the voice of a first responder. Marshall (Jordan Sobel) answers Gene’s pleas by heroically sliding down a rope to rescue him, only to discover that he’s seriously injured and that there’s no way out of the pit for either of them. When Marshall’s radio fails, the two men are forced to face an ending they wouldn’t choose. For most of this one-act play, Marshall fails to lighten the hardened heart of Gene. Their bantering turns to bickering, and their certainty of safety dims as both lose grips on reality.

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Even though live theater strives to be slow and to give a realistic sense of time passing, this feat is rarely achieved. Playwrights Jonathan Fielding and Brenda Withers penned in plenty of lines to keep the actors’ mouths moving frequently, but under the direction of Fielding time stands still. Owing in part to his decision to include minimal blocking, the limited number of movements made by both actors steadied what could have been a rapid hour-and-a-half-long production. Even in his most maniacal scenes, Jorgensen’s emotional vulnerability remained a strong constant throughout the play. At times, his efforts to mobilize a broken leg felt premeditated, but the painful twisting of his face always felt genuine.

Sobel’s charm was equally believable, particularly in moments when he indulged Jorgensen in arrestingly detailed flashback scenes. The amplification of Sobel’s character toward the end of the play was difficult to process, though, making it unclear if his change in personality was intended to be the play’s singular moment of intense character development or if he simply wasn’t feeling his devilish turn in disposition.

In the past, I’ve remarked on this company’s ability to preset props in the front of the house, always planting subtle plot clues to pique audience curiosity before the first line is delivered. For this production, theatergoers get a structural upgrade upon entry into the theater: a walkway ramp simulating a mineshaft, lit by wire light bulb cages and leading to a new backstage entrance. The house lights are controlled by audience members seated in the back row who are given headlamps to wear throughout the show. A few floodlights illuminate the impressive ceiling-to-floor quarry rock planned by Scenic Designer SeanColin Hankins, which he stratifies with boulder-like rocks from above, transitioning into scratched layers and tiny shards of coal down below. These smaller rocks onstage become a key acoustic effect throughout the production, one of many memorable sonic embellishments prepared by a man making a name for himself as one of Fort Worth’s most notable sound designers, David Lanza.

A lot of contemporary theater is drowning in humanity’s need for hopefulness. Northside Hollow is not. Dedicated theatre patrons will appreciate the show’s darker side, the non-sequitur twists, and the strong emotional presentations maintained by both actors. Newcomers may be less amused or more distracted by the impressive set design and the innovative use of lighting. Despite those few theatergoers who will claim, “I knew that was going to happen,” the ending will take most people by surprise. And what about that riddle? What’s red, played, and broken? If you know the answer, you know how the play ends.

Northside Hollow
Thru Mar 5 at Amphibian Stage Productions, 120 S Main St, FW. $33. 817-923-3012.

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