Everyone remembers their first contact with death. I don’t mean Death, though I assume that first face to “face” meeting in the no-longer flesh is quite memorable. I mean the first prehumous contact with death of someone close, when the mind begins to grasp the shattering gravity of what it means to be gone forever.
In Rorschach Theatre’s locally-grown triumph A Bid to Save the World, audiences peer into the mental fragments of a young woman as she confronts both the devastating death of her brother and the personification of Death itself. This young woman (her name is never revealed to the audience, but she’s played by razor-sharp Tyasia Velines) takes an inward journey, tapping her conscious and unconscious knowledge of death to contact her brother and, more subtly, understand her own mortality.
Playwright Erin Bregman’s coming-of-age story distinguishes itself from stereotypical heroic YA fodder with some strong choices that take this play from good to great. Most fun is the personification of the parts of her Self that she meets on her inward journey. Most fun are Adam and Evelyn (animus and anima for the psychology buffs at home) who live in the typical teenage fantasy of a world where no one dies, searching throughout the woman’s memory and thought experiments to understand the mechanics of death. Not only is Robert Pike charming and touching as Adam, but he deserves what might be the best compliment I can give to an actor: onstage, he carries himself like a human being, which is a far rarer quality than you’d think.
Other characters are generally confined to one of their areas of this epically beautiful set, that is, sections of Velines’ character’s mind. Most memorable is her library of cognitive memory where head librarian Ida (played with physical discipline and inexorable appeal by Jen Rabbitt Ring) and her assistant James (the ever-watchable Louis E. Davis) pull cards of informational memory from file drawers. Some are categorical (eg Causes of Death—Accidental—Avalanche), some are visual (eg historical depictions of death), but all are acted out by the ensemble to buoyant or heart-breaking effect.
The most visually impressive set piece seems to represent Velines’ character’s creative intuition: a partial exterior painted with a classic “Creation of Man” detail. More interestingly and/or abstractly, this textured gray wall reads like a brain from distance, which is perfect for its intuited story, principally executed by Daven Ralston and Natalie Cutcher, who are both addictive to watch onstage. More actors join them (Nahm Darr, Rashard Harrison and Paige O’Malley), and the eventual creative weave of this seemingly disjointed section into the main narrative is exactly what I look for in a well-written play.
Groupwork is the glue that holds A Bid to Save the World together. Director Lee Liebeskind shows a powerful faith in his actors/musicians by letting them devise music for this production. As actors, they create clear collective images with their bodies and allow for simplicity in gesture that translates to powerful story moments unhindered by text. He and the cast collaborate to create “lean you forward in your seat” moments that draw you in, and though I’d like to see more “push you back into your chair” moments, the pace kept me rapt.
Fair warning: A Bid to Save the World is a mental workout. Bregman and Liebeskind have no qualms making audiences hunt for nuggets of meaning in their non-linear presentation, as opposed to gift-wrapping morals for ready consumption. I call this the Easter vs Christmas dilemma. If you’re a person like me who enjoys Easter plays and the thrill of chasing understanding, you’re sure to love Bid. If you prefer Christmas plays and getting clear plots handed to you with a smile, Bid might be more chore than entertainment for you.
A Bid to Save the World
closes October 2, 2016
Details and tickets
Even for those who prefer Hammerstein to Hildesheimer, A Bid to Save the World provides moments of unmitigated enjoyment. From the giddy devised song that replaces the “turn off your cell phones” speech to a mournful accompaniment on the transportation of a character to the underworld, this play is full of easily accessible yet profound scenes. Dallas Tolentino’s alluring yet somewhat foppish portrayal of Death is gobs of fun. Rashard Harrison’s grave turn as the woman’s uncle has some lovely realistic acting moments.
I think the best part is that my interpretation of this play as sections of Velines’ character’s mind could be totally and utterly “wrong” (ie not what the production intended), but given these great easily digestible parts, that doesn’t matter. It is a great play either way. But A Bid to Save the World goes beyond mere greatness. Here Rorschach Theater has done what it does best: make an impossible story come to life in front of an audience. And, trust me, you want to be in that audience.
A Bid to Save the World by Erin Bregman. Directed by Lee Liebeskind . Featuring Linda Bard, Natalie Cutcher, Nahm Darr, Louis E. Davis, Rashard Harrison, Paige O’Malley, Robert Pike, Daven Ralston, Jen Rabbitt Ring, Christian Sullivan, Dallas Tolentino, and Tyasia Velines . Lighting Design: Katie McCreary . Sound Design: Veronica J. Lancaster . Costume Design: Danielle Preston . Props Design: Becky Mezzanotte . Stage Management: Linz Moore . Dramaturg: Maegan Clearwood . Music Direction: Hilary Morrow . Produced by Jenny McConnell Frederick, Randy Baker, Jonelle Walker, and Rorschach Theatre. Reviewed by Alan Katz.