by Stephen Cedars · January 12, 2014
Playwrights on New Plays #31 Stephen Cedars looks at The Record and The Room Nobody Knows part of the Under the Radar Festival To describe The Record is to risk doing it an injustice. But since that’s what I’m supposed to do, I’ll include a bit of their press description: “45 strangers come together for 61 minutes to show us who they are and who they could be.”
It’s a non-narrative, movement piece with no dialogue, wherein these 45 people enter and exit at intervals, rarely interacting with each other but almost always intensely focused on us. Any more description might make it sound more like an exercise than a show, but that’s not indicative of the experience, which actually offers a hypnotic, ambitious, and occasionally powerful confrontation.
The sparse but elegant set feels oddly disconnected from the expanse of the Public’s Martinson Theatre, creating a vaguely unsettling sense that’s only intensified when the show starts, due to the probing soundscape – a variety of samplers and a distorted cello – and of course the performers themselves.
And yet what’s really kind of wonderful is that the show isn’t unsettling, at least not in the way it initially seems to be. It’s hard to miss the extent of producing company 600 Highwaymen’s ambition. Without any language, they’re clearly aiming to evoke a multitude of profound themes: diversity, confrontation, communication, disconnection, and more. The experience has the tendency to veer between a quasi-symphonic hypnosis and a breeding ground for one’s own questions about the multitude of people we pass every day and might take for granted.
It’s that final element that moved me most; in the show’s back half, when most of the performers were on stage, it was quite thrilling, almost spectacular, especially since they were all so wonderfully and naturally distinct from one another. But it’s the kind of show where everyone’s likely to find his or her own way in.
There are arguably times where the process overshadows the product (which might be okay, since knowing that the actors all rehearsed separately is really quite amazing), or when the aesthetic can lose its freshness and feel as much a gimmick as an exploration. Or at least that happened for me. But it’s the kind of show that says as much about the viewer as it does about the artists, which is exactly what 600 Highwaymen wants. And for a lot of us, that’s more than enough reason to check it out. Which is probably something else the company wants too.
It seems like lots of art is described as ‘like a dream,’ even if most of it isn’t really that way at all. So I’m a bit hesitant to say that The Room Nobody Knows, brought from Japan as part of Under the Radar, is like a weird, complicated thrilling dream.
But the description fits too well. So much about the show was recognizable while remaining simultaneously oblique. The story, such as it is, is almost bare-bones. A life-long high school student prepares for his older brother’s birthday celebration by having his two alter-ego figures prepare a chess board and some wind instruments. The brother arrives, the men enjoy one another’s company, and then play some music.
Nothing felt intentionally confounding or clever, but all of the show’s symbols were loaded, rich, and Freudian as hell. The set is a wonderfully cramped two-stories, neither of which can quite support a man standing at his full height. There are phallic images everywhere, repeated passages from “Pachelbel's Canon,” and a whole lot of masks. There are so many possible explanations for the show (which I won’t mention for fear of ruining anything) but what makes it so refreshing is that for being so bizarre, it does suggest that there is an explanation. The symbols and homoerotic undertones feel less surreal than they do transferences, mostly because everything’s so contained. No matter what one makes of it, there’s the undeniable feeling that all of this is a reflection of a singular incident or feeling. But like a good dream, that incident is less important than the reflection.
And lucky for us that that reflection is so evocatively staged and realized. The longer dialogue scenes in the first half do have a tendency to drag a bit, sounding in their circular construction like unfinished Beckett shorts, but once the sexual and aggressive resonances start to pile on one another, it’s a non-stop thrill ride of repression and dankness till the dynamo final moments. All in all, it’d be extraordinarily creepy if it weren’t so kooky, and totally grounded if it weren’t so bizarre. Or to put it another way, it’s a whole lot like a really great dream you can’t wait to tell people about.