- This Storm Is What We Call Progress
- By Jason Grote
- Produced by Rorschach Theatre
- Directed by Jenny McConnell Frederick
- Reviewed by Tim Treanor
A gal, a pal, a cabal…Kabbalah! This perfect Storm has been brewing for centuries – brewing within us, from the days of the first Adam’s atoms, when we sought to find the words – “let there be light,” say, or “we hold these truths to be self-evident” – which would open the secrets of the invisible universe, and make new worlds come into being. This has been the particular mission of artists, a category which certainly includes Jason Grote and the cast of this superb production. At Rorschach, I’m delighted to report, they’ve found a way to peel up the rug and give us a peek, however brief, at the invisible universe beneath it.
This Storm Is What We Call Progress (the title comes from a Walter Benjamin observation about Paul Klee’s depiction of the angel of history) is right in Rorschach’s wheelhouse: a marriage of magic and the mundane, where wine and sacred blood soak a Metro card (which will be used to cure a hip ailment) and where a nameless woman with silver skin (Rena Cherry Brown) seeks out a young man, either to father the Messiah or in order to eat him. It is a beautifully written, flawlessly executed piece of work.
There’s more good news: brothers and sisters, Karl Miller’s back in town, and he’s better than ever – a completely natural presence who transforms what could have been hyperbolic or twee into something that could happen to you, and thus into something terrifying.
Adam (Miller), an actor living close to the bone, seeks use of a seedy studio owned by the silver-skinned woman in order to record himself orating a portion of his ridiculous one-man play, American Shylock. Lily (Sara Barker), a friend and acolyte of the silver-skinned woman, recognizes in Adam the torso of a man she saw in a dream – a man who zipped open his naked chest and revealed a sky full of bicycles. Lily and the woman, deep initiates into the world of the Kabbalah, interpret this and other signs as evidence that young Adam is destined to change human history, and that they are to make him do so. For the rest of us, he seems like a spectacularly normal guy who suffers bad judgment in his choice of studios.
Or is he? Later we learn that Adam’s father was mad for years. Eventually, he jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge, believing that he could fly. The mad dad left Adam a portfolio full of scrap paper and take-out menus covered with an indecipherable, incomprehensible scribble which Adam eventually discovers is a variant of a 14th-century Hebrew dialect. Adam wonders: does it mean anything? Or does anything mean anything? But this is before the face appears on his wall, speaking furiously in an unknown tongue, and before the chanting of the silver-skinned woman overwhelms the sound of the Shylock speech playing from his CD player. And so Adam goes back to the two women, one of whom will become his lover and the other his mentor, and learns the secrets of the invisible universe.
Let’s be honest: we all believe in the invisible universe, whether it be full of angels and demons or quarks, gluons and neutrinos. None of us limit ourselves to what we can perceive with our unaided senses. Some of us seek to enter the invisible universe with electron microscopes and the Hubbell Space Telescope, and some of us seek to enter it with drugs. Adam, Lily and the silver-skinned woman seek to enter it with the invocations and rituals of the Kabbalah.
That these invocations and rituals make no sense to those of us still limited to the visible universe (the blood kept in TupperwareTM containers neatly stacked in shelves along the wall is sure to give pause) should be no surprise. After all, if we knew the real truth, why would we continue to seek it out? On the other hand, where the language of the Kabbalah’s truth is so difficult, as it is here, that the human tongue cannot pronounce it, should we trust our human ears to understand it?
But while the Kabbalah itself may be difficult for non-initiates to understand, the play makes powerful narrative sense. At bottom, it is a celebration of passionate love, which is surely a manifestation of the invisible universe, and an exploration of paradise lost, which is always the consequence of knowledge. It depicts both with such skill and specificity as to make this play moving even in the absence of its fantastic backdrop and story line.
Much of this is the actors’ work. Barker, who was so appalling (and thus spot-on) as Jackie-O in House of Yes, is immensely appealing here, and is as effective as she was in the earlier show. Her Lily is a reluctant warrior, full of compassion for Adam because of the unspecified but dreadful fate awaiting him, but consumed with lust – carnal lust and lust for knowledge and power.
Brown is an outsized presence in a petite body, able to summon a rage so preternatural that it appears to have come from an invisible source itself.
Miller is so good he deserves a review – or a hymn of praise – all for himself. He underscores an old truth about acting: that the most difficult line is not from Hamlet’s famed Act III meditation on death but “huh? Oh, O.K.” Delivering natural speech in a natural way, without a hint of artifice, as if you were talking with your wife when three hundred people are hanging on your every word, is the devil’s own task. Miller makes it look as easy as breathing. He has a monologue at the top of the Second act, full of stops and starts, coughs, stammers, breaks, looks into the distance and back again, which is as difficult as anything I’ve seen on stage this year. Miller does it so convincingly that it is hard to believe that he has not simply wandered in from the Georgetown University campus, and is telling the story of his life.
Frederick, whose sure-footed direction puts the audience at immediate ease despite the play’s exotic subject-matter, marries the fine acting to some extraordinary production values. Let me go further: every production element of this play is of Helen Hayes Award caliber. There is nothing to do but to simply list the folks responsible, with praise and gratitude: Franklin Labovitz’ costumes, Robbie Hayes’ set, Matt Frederick’s sound, David C. Ghatan’s lights, and Francoise Bastien’s props. (Extra kudos to Frederick for playing the coolest intermission music in the world). This is a play about magic and it requires magic. These guys more than answer the requirement.
But is it magic? Or is it madness? Did Adam come to be touched by God, or did he become a homeless man, muttering incomprehensible incantations and pleading for nickels? And what of Lily? Did Adam, with power drawn from the invisible universe, crush her soul? Or did he just break her heart? In the end, they meet again, tentative and polite like lovers who have done terrible wrongs to each other. The visible and the invisible universes meet briefly and touch each other, and they ask the same question we ask ourselves: does it make any difference?
Running Time: 2:30, with one intermission.
When: Thursdays through Sundays until July 20. Thursday through Saturday shows are at 8; Sunday shows are at 3. No show July 4.
Where: Davis Center for the Performing Arts, Georgetown University Campus, 37th and O Streets NW, Washington, D.C.
Tickets: $20 ($12 for seniors and students). Call 1.800.494.8497 or go to the website.
More Information: Call 202.452.5538,