Let’s go ahead and flag playwright Michael Merino’s new ocean-bound brain-bender as the polar opposite of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster film. Both harken back to the RMS Titanic’s ill-fated maiden journey in 1912. But the maiden in Cameron’s flick was 22-year-old Kate Winslet, amply endowed and quick to strip for her blonde, blue-eyed Leo in steerage. Who could resist? Let those loose lips sink ships!
Six hundred million box office dollars later, it seems Cameron’s steamy voyage had something for everyone. Merino’s very strange show, currently playing at Fort Fringe, most definitely does not. It’s doggedly avant-garde, rigorously perplexing, and doles out its brainy jolts like splashes of ice water. The cast is tenacious. The direction is fierce. But what on earth is it about?
If the show’s looming iceberg of a title didn’t tip you off (I’ll abbreviate it here to HDATCT), be forewarned: this is no easy cruise. By seizing on this iconic ship as a framework for exploring the human brain itself, Merino has cast its passengers as the manifest thoughts of a frenetic modern mind. These well-dressed ladies and gentlemen aren’t just brainy folk — they’re the brain incarnate, a hyper-cerebral chorus of dissonant sparks spouting clouds of philosophy and theory non-stop from beginning to end.
Name a topic — it’s already blasted open: technology, gender, politics, class, money, religion, free will… a massive breadth of notions into which we’re immediately plunged. The spectre of the iceberg seems far off indeed — this bunch is already drowning in their own ideas.
If this sounds like a wingnut mess, hold on. Lord knows it certainly could have been. But just as a sailor starts to spot islands amidst a choppy sea, so does the audience learn to captain their own experience of HDATCT. The first ten minutes of the show are vertiginous — a tsunami of interconnected statements from a cast of 12 — but then a few mental anchors start to snag, and soon you find your sea legs. You begin to appreciate the weird mixture of direct symbolism and controlled chaos Merino employs as he maps our state of mind in real time.
The set, designed by Brooke A. Robbins, hints nicely at this theme by charting out the details of the ship’s deck in royal blue and white paint. If the blueprint-y appearance of the lines on the floor foreshadows the Titanic’s premature destruction, it may also hint at the underlying neural map across which the actors — and we — perform our mental aerobics, at the fizzling inner circuit-board we try to route ourselves along through life.
Am I over-analyzing? Believe me, I’m just trying to keep up. Characters declaim maxims like “Censorship is largely self-inflicted!” and “The real liberator of women is the American enterprise system!” before bounding off to shout about the “hum of modernity,” say, or “technologically administered somnambulance.” The verbosity hits gibberish levels at times — it’s like a room full of drunk deaf philosophers.
Hemispheric Dysfunctionalism and the Cortical Titanic
Closes October 28, 2012
The Shop at Fort Fringe
607 New York Avenue NW
1 hour, 20 minutes with no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Yet HDATCT is far from un-formed. Several factors keep it buoyed from start to finish. One critical stowaway is Kerri Rambow, who co-directed with Merino and, it appears, has overseen the rhythm and choreography of the ensemble throughout. Several well-practiced sequences of unison and carefully-timed group gestures (in a scene of group prayer, for instance, or while eating a meal together) create inspiring stage pictures and delightful musicality. Rambow directed the last two Michael Merino shows: The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over the Lazy Dogs at Fringe 2009 and Squirrel, or The Origin of a Species at Fringe 2011, and although she shares directing credit here, her contribution is central to the success of the piece.
Several sung sequences, too, provide welcome interludes. Music directors Jason McCool and Philip McLeod have done lovely work with singers Katharina Acosta and Rachel Rollins, and the songs give shape to certain regions of emotion that the otherwise fevered dialectics can’t quite touch.
And, man, what a hard-working cast. From the harsh and delirious first scene (which features ship captain Hazelwood, played by Ian LeValley, steering through a stylized maelstrom) to the final, brilliantly-staged moment of bodies floating, inevitably, adrift, every actor stays on tempo and delivers with crisp certainty.
You may find yourself a little green at moments, trying to swim toward air, but Merino and his crew work briskly and unrelentingly to deliver on a concept. It’s high-minded, but gut-punching. And ultimately, HDATCT steams through to its proper port with force and a rolling tide of interesting ideas. No “king of the world” aboard here — just a madly creative manifest.
Hemispheric Dysfunctionalism and the Cortical Titanic, by Michael Merino, Co-directed by Michael Merino and Kerri Rambow. Features Ian LeValley as the Captain, with Scott Sedar, Misty Demory, Keith Irby, Jefferson Farber, Megan Dominy, Keith Waters, Bethany Michel, Patrick Joy, Darius T. Epps and Phil McLeod. Produced by 5th Dentist. Reviewed by Hunter Styles.