Saturday, July 13, 2013

'rogerandtom': Who Says Disorienting Meta-drama Can't Be Fun?

It’s Twilight Zone meets The Matrix, with a passing nod to Pirandello and Sartre, in rogerandtom, the smart, funny, and—in the end—surprisingly touching play by Julien Schwab, now on view at the HERE Arts Center.

A sense of disorientation begins to take hold while we await the start of the play.  We begin to notice something odd and dream-like about the set, very cleverly designed by David Esler.  It is an apartment, but—as in a dream—parts of the set are more-or-less realistic looking, while other parts are barely sketched out. In the kitchen, for example, there is a smallish refrigerator, but instead of a stove and sink, these are merely outlined on the floor.  The bathroom has a sink and toilet, but also an empty frame where a mirror would be.  There is a phone, but its wires dangle, obviously not connected to anything. 

In addition, we are aware that sitting opposite us on the other side of the set is the rest of the audience.  We are not looking over the set, as would be the case with similar layouts at other venues, but through it—which adds to the feeling that something not quite right is going on here.  Then we are plunged into darkness, and bombarded with dissonant music, and the play begins. 

rogerandtom is a like a funhouse full of distorting mirrors, open to multiple perspectives and interpretations, depending on which way you look at it.  As I sat watching this metaphysical tale unfold, I was reminded of something that Professor Dumbledore says to Harry Potter in the final book in J. K. Rowling’s popular series about the young wizard:  “Of course it is happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real.” 

The gist of the plot is this:  Roger (Eric T. Miller) has come to see a play that his brother Tom has written.  The brothers have been estranged for five years, and it is at the behest of their sister Penny (Suzy Jane Hunt) that Roger has reluctantly agreed to show up at all.  The third character on the scene is Rich (Richard Thieriot), Penny’s soon-to-be ex-husband. 

Reality and the world of the stage begin to merge almost from the outset, and the confluence of the two never lets up.  The fourth wall is breached so many times, it becomes not just a stage device but a key aspect of the play, adding that Twilight Zone/Matrix element and becoming—to at least one of the characters—a source of sheer terror every time it happens.

But please don’t think of rogerandtom as ponderous or headache-inducing.  It is very accessible, and often quite funny.  While the plot continuously shifts gears, the focus is always on the dramatis personae—the three characters, plus the actors who play them, plus an unseen but often discussed omniscient playwright. 

The play moves along at a fast clip and runs but an hour, thanks to a playwright who is wise enough to know when to stop and a production company, Personal Space Theatrics, that knows not to demand additional material to stretch the evening beyond the play's natural stopping point.  

In the end, we are left with a deeper appreciation for what Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously called “the willing suspension of disbelief” and an understanding that we generally believe what we choose to believe—something we cannot so easily walk away from, as the characters in this play learn. 

Much credit needs to go to the director Nicholas Cotz, and to the splendid cast.  Mr. Thieriot and Ms. Hunt do a wonderful job of shifting constantly between playing actors and playing the characters they portray (“we’re works of art, not artists,” is how Mr. Thierot puts it). And Mr. Miller is excellent as the bemused stand-in for the audience, both disturbed by and caught up in the action. 

All in all, rogerandtom is an original and solid work, and Mr. Schwab shows himself to be a playwright to be reckoned with. 

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