Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Untitled Mars (This Title May Change)

Photo/Justin Bernhaut

If Miranda July made plays instead of movies, they'd look and sound like Jay Scheib's frenzied yet passionless, meticulous yet sloppy, artificial yet somehow realistic new play Untitled Mars (This Title May Change). As with his last work, This Place is a Desert, Jay relies on hyperphysical action to compensate for dry yet hammy dialogue (spam?), and uses multiple camera feeds and projections to create a visual mash-up of landscapes and emotions that's cool. But this coolness comes at a price, an arctic absolute zero that freezes out plot.

To his credit, Jay's direction grows ever more precise: the strong ensemble cast don't just talk uncomfortably to the camera, they speak through it. The show still looks very staged, but the artificiality of the project is balanced by the play's conceit: this action is a simulation of an actual Life-on-Mars simulation. (He actually interviews some of the "crew" of the Mars Desert Research Station [MDRS] during the show, a bit of metadrama that works because of how unscripted it is [or at least seems].) Also, by making a schizophrenic a central character (she is out of sync with time), the jumbling together of actions, the repetitious physical movements, and the theatrical equivalents of jump cuts seem more focused and relevant to the action.

But there's a reason I haven't written about the story yet: Untitled Mars gets lost, as Jay says, in the fiction. Arnie (Caleb Hammond), some sort of bigwig on Mars, tries to butt in on a real-estate deal being made by a new visitor (Waris Ahluwalia), which requires him to negotiate with his lover, Jackie (Tanya Selvaratnam) and his ex-wife, Anne (April Sweeny). Meanwhile, isolated crew members snap from the pressure: Norbert (Balazs Vajna) rips a hole in his suit and literally dies of depressurization, and his best friend, Sylvere (Laszlo Keszeg) cheats on his wife, Doreen (Dorka Gryllus), as a means of breaking the tedium in his life. In many ways, this play could simply be called This Place is a (Martian) Desert: for all the science, it's a parable for human behavior: we won't just terraform Mars, we'll psychoform it too, bringing Earth to Mars in every way, shape, and form.

Despite this redundancy of theme, Jay Scheib's direction is fresh and startling, and buoyant enough to carry on through things that don't make sense -- "theater of the psychotic," as I've heard others describe it. His design team (especially Peter Ksander's retro science-fiction set, constructed entirely of slick white papers and plastics) gives him ample room for surprises, and there are enough gun shots, static crackles, video interludes, vacuum explosions, and blaring sirens to keep us interested. But these blatant shocks (or, say, Oana Botez-Ban's colorful costuming, from the Seascape-like Martian to the red-dressed passions of Mannie) are never really transportive either: it's hard to be taken seriously in anti-gravity.

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