Monday, November 09, 2009

What Once We Felt

Ann Marie Healy fills her latest play, What Once We Felt, with a lot of vague gestures, as characters allow themselves to regurgitate what others have said—talking, in other words, without saying anything. But there is nothing vague about Healy’s terrific plot, which like the best dramatic science-fiction passes on a specific allegory to the here and now. In this world, all the men are gone—redundancies, perhaps—and government has been replaced by the totalitarian RSS, which shows the danger of putting “more faith into algorithms than Aristotle.” Of the women left, they have been grouped—genetically—into Keepers, who can carry on their life as they please, and Tradepacks, who are slowly facing extinction, since they are unable to “download” babies.

Healy’s incredibly smart writing immediately gets to work at showing how insane it is to claim to recognize “perfection.” The play opens with a teenage girl, Violet (Ronete Levenson), “the last living Tradepack,” insisting that she’s “lived a full life,” and offering, as proof, her feelings. Cheryl (Lynn Hawley), on the other hand, has never been taught to show her feelings, and it’s not until meeting the neurotic writer Macy (Mia Barron), that she expresses anything other than the cool, professional exterior of a border guard. “Why do you get to change your life?” she wonders later that night, sitting in dim squalor, her mother writhing in unconscious pain, as Macy dines with her editor, Astrid (Ellen Parker), at the upscale Panet. In contrast like this—and these effects are heightened by Kris Stone’s coldly industrial set—it becomes clear just how subjective the word “perfection” is, and warns us not to let our given circumstances define us.

However, it’s hard not to be battered down by “reality” when fiction has all but ceased to exist. Claire Monsoon (Opal Alladin), a mogul publisher who has innovated a new form of work-free reading, “Digi-Directs,” has made a fortune off of the vapid, childish prattle of Inspector Ovid and his talking dog. Their platitudes—as hokily presented as old-time radio serials—ask readers to “believe,” but only in the world as given. That’s why Macy—who has written a book about a woman who just happens to be a Tradepack—has such trouble getting published: who can understand, let alone “believe” in something as “complicated” as that?

Except, it’s not complicated, and that’s what Healy communicates so well, using What One We Felt as a case-in-point, at least for those who are willing to listen. This dystopia is a warning: not everything can be reduced to cold logic and mathematical reason. This is shown best by Benita and Yarrow (Hawley and Parker), who, because of a computer bug, wound up with an “error” instead of the baby they’d carefully selected from online simulations. And yet, Benita falls for it completely: “Maybe we don’t [have choices],” she says. “Maybe we think we do but an Error / Is some amazing lesson / Some amazing possibility / For something / Unforeseen / Something / Beautifully / I don’t know.” It’s also shown—in a more dangerous form—by Macy’s line-editor, Laura (Marsha Stephanie Blake), who converts Macy’s more open-ended prose into what is essentially a religious pamphlet: “Help these Tradepacks to leave this world of suffering / Give them a new story / A new mythology: something better to believe in.”

So we must be able to choose, sure, but the things we choose from must not be predetermined. Perhaps that is a little complicated, especially for a society as litigious as ours, but Healy’s beautifully paced language never makes us think so. Also worth noting is Ken Rus Schmoll’s direction, which shows the rhythm of these characters on stage, in which characters slowly burn when confronted with comic, outsized characters (like Claire and Astrid) and then begin to erupt when given a chance to speak by the quieter people (like Laura and Cheryl). Barron, who is desperately trying to remain at the eye of this storm—attempting “reserved restraint”—benefits the most from all these views around her, a perfect example of a logical person who nonetheless follows her emotions.

What Once We Felt gets only one thing wrong: its title. While it’s perhaps true of the characters in this ominously not-so-distant future, it’s not telling the audiences what they need to hear: that this is a show in which We Can Still Feel, and that they must see it.

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