It’s not uncommon to feel some instinctive concern for an actor’s health and safety, whether they’re brandishing swords or simply stepping too close to the edge of the stage. But The Lost Ones may be the first show in which I’ve feared that the characters are going to be stepped on and crushed.
That added sense of dread is no accident, as director Richard Henrich and his life-size performer Carter Jahncke have cast the whole show – adapted from a Samuel Beckett short story – with a homemade set of tiny black figurines. Each citizen of this strange, small world is about as tall as a toothpick, and nearly as slight. They are the human shadows of a dark little dystopia, to which we oversize onlookers can’t help but play God. Or perhaps that’s a strong word to describe our role in the drama. If there is a divine presence watching over this miniature population, it’s near impossible to make out, as their world appears shrouded in an existential gloom that only a master storyteller like Beckett could endow with magical edges.
These men and women – “the little people,” as the program calls them – spend their waking lives inside a cylinder fifty meters in diameter and sixteen meters high (Jahncke, as narrator, is clinically precise with such details). The ceiling of the world, like the walls and floor, seems to be made of a sort of rubber. Niches and hideaways, some connected by tunnels, score the walls and corners. Long ladders run upwards into the darkness. Uncertain oscillations in light and temperature do daily damage to the people’s health and sanity, corroding their capacity for everything from sex and love to basic facial recognition. In other words, not such a good place to settle down and raise a family.
It’d be a tremendous downer to look in on this alone. Thankfully, Jahncke is our Virgil, the ethereal and unnamed host. The love and care with which he sets the tableaux – crowds of tiny people standing, sitting, hanging, searching – is at once heartwarming and eerie. In this world, he explains, there exist four kinds of people: Those perpetually in motion… Those who sometimes pause… Those who never stir unless prompted… And those who sit silently against the wall and never lift their heads. Out of those who do climb, some do it to explore the dark corners, while others do it simply to get off the ground. Sound like any species you know? Jahncke is brilliantly subtle. His narrator seems happily fascinated by the little people’s attempts to break out of what they know, and the clear collaboration in design pays off organically during the performance (Jahncke helped to design the little figures, and director Henrich co-developed the set and sound).
The narrator is scatter-minded – he chews his words, relishing the strange and new and intriguing. “One body per square meter, or two hundred bodies in all” he breathes tenderly as he roams through this story, his feet padding across the length and width of the floor. He’s spread out a painter’s cloth, stained with color and grime, which ripples and bunches at the edges. It is this bleak, almost lunar landscape which the tiny figures call home, and it creates a deeply unsettling apprehension, as if you were out at a restaurant and had a waiter standing next to you at all times, one hand on the tablecloth, ready to yank it all away. How suddenly mortal we all are, indeed, if our universe can so easily be scooped up and rolled aside!
The growing desperation affects our narrator as well. The playing space – barely fifteen feet square, surrounded on three sides by intimate platform seating – pens him in, and Jahncke finds little, fascinating ways to wither alongside his characters. Sometimes it’s barely more than a nervously scratched head; at other, more frantic periods, he is hit with a wave of asthmatic choking, gasping and grasping for more to say, as if sabotaged by tainted oxygen. In the most dramatically tense moments, he seems completely tangled in the mental strands of his own dream-weaving. Rather than acting as a God, his omniscience un-grounds him; his agelessness sets him adrift.
The language is dense, prayerful stuff, some of which is tricky to catch on the first listen. But what a rich environment in which to foster a ghostly little fable like The Lost Ones! It’s an elegant baptism for Spooky Action’s new space, in the basement of the Universalist National Memorial Church. Take the front row, if you can. It’s a chance to feel involved in the creation, and to see all the tiny details of this sudden world close-up. Just beware: Coming out at the end, it may be hard to shake a strange, cosmic suspicion that we ourselves have been placed, like figurines, into our small, sad lives. Have we been seeing things through a camera zoomed in or, rather, zoomed all the way out?
The Lost Ones
Adapted by Carter Jancke from a story by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Rochard Henrich
Produced by Spooky Action Theater
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
THE LOST ONES
Chris Klimek . Washington City Paper