Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Realm

Photo/Sam Hough

In the "future not so far from now" of Sarah Myers's muddled The Realm, ignorance isn't just bliss, it's a necessity. Nestled underground to avoid the deadly rays of the sun and on harsh water rations, most of humanity has given up its language, hoping that by forgetting the words for the things they can no longer have (like "cookies"), they will be able to content themselves on the Approved Speech of their group life. It's a bold and interesting concept, but a difficult one to stage: not just because of epic stage directions that call for a flood of water and a transition from dank, claustrophobic tunnels to a gloriously bright and grassy outdoors (none of which is realized in this production), but because the characters cannot adequately communicate.

This would be fine, too, except that Myers has far too much to say--and has left herself less than an hour in which to do so. The first full scene, between Mr. Father (Timur Kocak), Mrs. Mother (Amy Temple), and their son, James (Aaron Simon Gross), hints at the drama of a rebellious teen--one who makes unruly sounds and disturbs the perfect synchronization of their dinners--learning the truth of his plastic-masked parents. But Myers also wants to talk about how in this world, children are raised to believe that it is an honor and a duty to kill their parents--population control and responsibility, rolled into one. She also wants to communicate the history of this world, so James's real mother Laura (Amy Bodnar) periodically sneaks onstage--a somehow-survivor of the linguistic purge--to explain it to us. And then on top of that, there's the contrast offered by Kansas (a fierce Emily Olson), a dreamer brimming with language that has made her a marked child by the totalitarian Mind Review and its mouthpiece, Ms. Analyst (the cool Jessica Pohly). Perhaps Myers's own logic gets twisted in all the different threads, none of which are adequately addressed, but suffice to say, Kansas befriends James, the two run off together, and despite apparently getting captured, they both also escape?

Some of the issues with The Realm are production issues: Jessica Fisch, the director, never finds the right tones for alternating between the different moods, let alone the locations. (She does, however, nails the oppressive creepiness of the underground, from the atmosphere sounds to the actors-as-walls effect.) As for the cast, Bodnar either doesn't understand what her character's talking about or doesn't connect to it, and Gross remains at one quizzical note throughout the show. Without more active, apparent motives, their scenes--which take up the majority of The Realm--suck the life out of even the more creative or poetic bits (like Laura's attempts to cling to language). The scenes between the well-matched Pohly and Olson are at least intriguing and tense, allowing us to get past the more confusing moments.

The biggest problem with The Realm, though, is not that it doesn't have the words it needs to communicate: It's that it has no characters with which to speak. There are people standing there who point out that words are as dangerous as they are important and necessary and that our imagination is what defines us. But these are philosophical thoughts--not actions--and they tell us nothing about the characters on stage, nothing about why they're suddenly doing the things they're doing. That sort of lazy, exploitative writing gives science-fiction a bad name, and this is a far cry from similarly themed work like Artifacts of Consequence or similarly styled shows like What Once We Felt. Concepts without characters should remain on the page and off the stage.

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