“Be thankful you have even that.”
This is a tricky one. The last time I saw a production at Workhouse Theatre Co., it was their brilliant production of Marsha Norman’s “’Night, Mother.” It was a great example of a perfect group of collaborators set loose on a riveting script. Both sides of the equation made the other better, and they ended up with a well-deserved Ivey Award for their efforts. Workhouse’s current production, the area premiere of “100” written by Christopher Hemann, Diene Petterle, and Neil Monaghan, is a little more imbalanced. It’s not the fault of the production. Diane Mountford’s direction is spot-on. The ensemble of actors work really well with each other, and individually, and the script calls upon them to do a lot of both. The design team does their usual great job. The set design by Sarah J. Leigh in particular is wonderful - opening up the performance space at the Warren in ways I haven’t seen Workhouse use it before, and director and cast take full advantage of having the whole theater space in which to roam. It’s a very engaging production of a pretty smart script. I just wish the story and characters went further.
“100” starts with an intriguing premise. Four characters are dead and about to be, for want of a better word, processed back through the assembly line of souls and returned to the living world. They can only take one memory of their past life just ended with them. All other memories will be erased. They have a limited time in which to choose this memory. If they fail to do so, they lose everything and start their next phase of existence as a blank slate. The warning is that such an existence is less than ideal.
The problem with this premise, fascinating though it is, is that it immediately boxes in the characters, the story - and the audience. And the longer it goes on, the more limited the options become. Not that the show itself is long - it clocks in at only a little over an hour, leaving plenty of time to sit down for a drink or a meal and chew over the play (and with a subject like this, there’s a lot of food for thought). The danger with a story structured like this is that the audience can get way too far out ahead of it. (For instance, most audience members can probably see the last line coming from about a mile away.)
Another example - something as simple as a character who starts counting, which other characters pick up, clues us in right away that once the count reaches 100, the show is over. The trouble with this is that there’s no rhyme or reason to the number chanting in the script. It doesn’t recur with any recognizable pace, cadence or frequency. It is merely a convenience for the authors. Its significance is never explained. It could just as easily be some other standard of measure - increments of 12 or 60 hold as much significance as 10 or 50 in some cultures.
There are four characters onstage going through the processing ritual. As each one completes it, they disappear and do not return. So we know as we watch that the play isn’t over until everyone has had their epiphany, and as the story continues, there are fewer and fewer players to help in the telling. There is an additional character of a Guide (Robert Larsen) who seems to understand what’s going on, and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere (though in a telling reversal of everything else in the script, neither of those assumptions turn out to be right - and that is one of the story’s most satisfying payoffs). The character of the Guide, and Larsen’s performance, are intriguing enough to keep one guessing, and when the revelation finally comes, you don’t feel tricked, which is a nice bit of work by authors and actor alike.
Maybe I don’t handle random well. That could be it. The inscrutable nature of the memory device is clearly a stand-in for either a judgmental or indifferent controller of the universe in matters of life and death. The memories which these people seem to think are the most important for them, aren’t. Or at least, they aren’t in the judgment of whoever or whatever is pulling the strings. The first time each one of the characters choose, they choose wrong. They and the audience know this because there is no flash of light that preserves that memory and erases all others. The characters are still there, memories intact. Which begs the question, if you aren’t really allowed to choose the right memory but someone has already chosen it for you and you’re merely playing a cruel guessing game, what’s the point? The writers are playing god, with the characters and the audience, and they’re not playing fair. The rules we’re given aren’t really the full set of rules, and the characters and the audience are going to keep getting jerked around until the writers are done with them. That’s not a fun place to be sitting, on or off stage. Perhaps it’s the writers’ intention to provoke. The point of the provocation remains largely unknown.
The problem with a script that’s constructed like a puzzle box is that the structure and the puzzle become the point. The characters are merely pieces being moved around a game board by the authors. Rather than story and character being advanced by the characters interacting with and influencing one another, the changes in character are solitary. The whole thing has a distancing effect. It’s hard to be unsettled when you’re only being engaged on an intellectual level and not an emotional one. You are always aware that you’re watching a play from the outside, rather than being allowed to immerse yourself in the story.
The inscrutability does have some payoffs. When we think we’re being handed easily digestible platitudes, we find we’re ultimately not spoon-fed anything. Sure, the character of Sophie (Sigrid Sutter), who realizes she’s not beautiful and then throws herself into her work, isn’t going to be allowed to take the moment of the pinnacle of her career with her as her most treasured memory. But the play doesn’t pretend that there is no satisfaction in life lived for work alone, or that all Sophie really needed was love. The play doesn’t imply that she wasted her life. And the peculiar memory she does end up taking with her may actually stand her in good stead to get more of what she wants the next time around. Alex (Joel Raney) and Nia (Jen Rand), scruffy young lovers who died together and want to find some way to stay together in that one key memory, find they each have very different, if equally pleasant, ideas about the memory of the day they first met. It is the inability of one of them to choose, or share, that key memory that threatens to tear them apart for eternity. Ketu (Khary Jackson) learns that it is not his great discovery and quest to spread knowledge among his tribe that is his primary memory, but perhaps simply learning to live and make peace with the ingrained ignorance of society for the sake of his family.
Side note - I have to admit that my knee-jerk liberal reaction to the only actor of color in the cast being put in the role of the savage who learns the world isn’t flat after all had me resisting parts of that last storyline. But it also got me thinking about all kinds of other creative casting which might have taken place. When one character is recounting their memories, all the other members of the ensemble step into supporting roles in each other’s personal dramas. It’s a seamless piece of work, with each tiny role fleshed out with the same care and attention to detail as if the roles were much larger and more significant. In lesser hands, these seeming throwaway mini-roles might have been less rich. In Workhouse’s production, several miniature worlds are created in service of the larger story. If the actors and director can do that (and they do, oh they do - it’s one of the chief pleasures of watching this production), imagine what other things they might have done by turning this script inside out and playing fast and loose with gender and race roles as well. The more predictable elements of the script might have garnered a little unexpected freshness in the process.
Despite my issues with the script, the actors do great work, the direction keeps things moving along and visually interesting, and the design creates an engaging netherworld that surrounds the audience in the dark. If you haven’t seen a Workhouse production yet, this is a fine example of the kind of work they do best. They keep raising the bar for themselves with every production, and “100” is another step up the ladder. All scripts, great or flawed, would be lucky to get this sort of treatment.
The area premiere of “100” runs through Saturday, October 18, 2008 at Workhouse Theatre Co.’s performance home at The Warren, 4000 Vincent Avenue North in Minneapolis. For information and reservations, visit www.workhousetheatre.org or call 612-386-5763. On the website, there's also a little video preview.