Play, D.C. Copeland’s aptly named and spryly entertaining new play that premiered Thursday evening at Shaking the Tree, playfully underlines a crucial point: in the theater, there is no such thing as realism.
That is, realism isn’t reality. It’s just another style, artificial like all the rest. Characters live and breathe and do what they do at the whim of an invisible hand – not Adam Smith’s elusive economic balancer, but the hand of an unseen character known as the playwright, who may or may not be in control of the impulses that move her to play the pieces of the play the way she does. The playwright, in this case, is the mother of invention, and she has the audacity to openly display the artificiality of her enterprise while at the same time trying to lure the audience into that emotional complicity with the characters that we call, for convenience, “realism.”
A few shades of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author are flitting about the stage, although the characters in Play generally tend to consider the author more of a minor irritation than a crucial element of the action. And Copeland’s play dovetails, in intriguing ways, with a couple of other meditations on self-invention and the inherent theatricality of people’s lives that are on the boards in Portland right now: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Portland Shakespeare Project and Much Ado About Nothing at Post5. Viola invents an artificial reality that slowly aligns with “real” reality in Twelfth Night, as much through the power of language as through the foolery of disguise. Beatrice and Benedick trick the tricksters in Much Ado by following the self-deception of their mutual passion to discover it is the key to the very deep truth that their illusion is, in fact, their central truth: in a “real” sense, they’ve created (or perhaps discovered) themselves. In both plays – let’s say all three, because Copeland’s, too, is very much about the mysterious power of language to create and alter and sometimes destroy life – words are the magic that create and sustain existence out of nothingness.
If that sounds very meta-, well, it is. Like her simpler and much darker The Undiscovered Country, which premiered in May at Defunkt, Play relishes the gamesmanship of theater, and Copeland could hardly hope for a smarter and more vibrant production than she gets in this premiere production, which is directed by John San Nicolas, who also stars in the key role of the Narrator (meta-theatrical plays pretty often have a narrator, so named or not: think Our Town). Some plays are very forgiving: their virtues are so narrative and near the surface that they can survive even mediocre productions. Play is of the more elaborate and particular sort: it’s a loose-jointed yet cunningly structured edifice that everyone involved, from director to performers to designers, must fully comprehend and be in agreement on. In lesser hands, the whole puzzle could fall apart, like amateur Beckett. Play is very much a gamble – that the director and actors will get what’s going on, and that the members of the audience will appreciate having the blueprint created and contradicted and reshaped in front of their eyes.
The illusion of Play is that you can strip the illusion away, revealing all of its working parts, and still leave it intact. The danger is that the audience will see it as mere trickiness, and get bored when the arbitrary wand waves again. It’s very much, though not exclusively, a play for insiders – for artists, who grapple with this issue of reality and illusion every day in their own work; and for avid arts followers, who are fascinated by what it is that artists are about. Except for a couple of points where my attention flagged and I fantasized that I’d dropped in on a grad-school philosophy-of-theater seminar, I was caught up in both the play and the production, appreciating its little twists and plunges and cluster-bombs of comedy and even, though I usually loathe such things, its occasional forays into audience participation (partly, I think, because the audience-participation bits weren’t done earnestly, but with self-deprecating humor: how far can we manipulate you and get away with it?).
Play exists at various and shifting levels of reality: the unseen playwright, who is both the most and least important “character”; the omniscient and a little caustic Narrator; the actor playing a playwright, who seems to be pulling the strings except when they sometimes pull her; the characters the actor/playwright creates; even the audience, which is repeatedly exhorted to respond and get involved. The play begins, skippingly, with a character who decides she’s a playwright (bright and bushy Vonessa Martin, as Flan) and a second character (the arch and ferociously funny Lauren Modica, as Lola) who, somewhat arbitrarily, becomes her roommate. Flan declares; Lola prods; Flan scribbles; Lola argues. An extended family springs to life: best friends Grace (Kelly Godell) and Lila (Keiko Green); Grace’s daughter Rosalind (Tiffany Groben), who undergoes an entire life cycle over the play’s intermissionless 80-odd minutes; Grace’s too-good-to-be-true husband (Spencer Conway), who maybe isn’t so good but then again maybe is; and Joshua J. Weinstein as a sort of stagehand/factotum/handy spare part to be comically employed when the situation arises. The characters stumble, under Flan’s arbitrary hand, through episodes ludicrous and touching, comical and tragic, drunken and sober, furtive and open; and at some point the enthusiasm of the process gives way to something more wearing and heavier for the play’s creator to bear. Things happen to the characters that the playwright (the playwright in the play, and maybe the one outside of it, too) regrets but somehow cannot change: some things, she says, just have to be the way they have to be. Creation, as it turns out, is something weightier than just fun and games. Fantasies take on moral and emotional dimension.
As Copeland and her characters shift between action and commentary, commentary and action, director San Nicolas’s actors hover in a territory between avatars and fully fleshed characters, developing emotional shadings despite the playwright’s insistence that they are mere inventions: imperceptibly, they coax the audience into caring about their fates. This, too, is part of the illusion of the theater: It’s what happens every night onstage, only more baldly, almost perversely, stated in Play. And the actors’ deep dives into their characters, that fusion of the real and unreal that makes good fiction feel so very much alive, is crucial to it all.
It’s an exceptionally strong cast: I was taken particularly by Green’s emotionally confused Lila and Modica’s brassy Lola. And San Nicolas’s Narrator is a wonder, ranking with his outstanding work in the likes of Badass Theatre’s Invasion! and Artists Rep’s The Motherfucker with the Hat. He’s a stretchy-elastic, caustic, rueful, show-offish, restrained, unpredictably funny conduit of high-voltage energy, connecting everyone to everyone else. It’s ferocious. Then again, it’s only a play.
Play, produced at Shaking the Tree by Cracked Nutshell (well, you’ve got to if you’re going to eat the nut), has a limited run of nine performances though August 8. Ticket and schedule information are here.