‘World Builders’ review: when worlds collide

Badass Theatre Company’s production of Johnna Adams’s play explores alternative mental universes before falling back down to earth

As the audience files in, Whitney and Max sit silently at opposite corners of the stage, lost in thought.

In fact, we soon learn they’re deeply immersed in their respective fantasy worlds — the condition that, Whitney informs us in relatively clunky blatant exposition, landed them both in this sterile patient lounge. As part of a research project they’ve been reluctantly enrolled in, they and the (unseen) other patients must take their prescribed experimental medication intended to eliminate their fantasizing — or face involuntary commitment to a mental institution.

Dunkin and Tidd in Badass Theatre’s ‘World Builders.’ Photo: Russell J. Young.

But what if they don’t want to give up their imaginary worlds? And even if the treatment works, how will these damaged people cope with mundane, messy reality?

That’s the provocative set-up for Johnna Adams’s World Builders, which Badass Theatre is staging through June at southeast Portland’s Shaking the Tree Theatre. It’s a fascinating concept and a promising play that offers tantalizing glimpses into alternative mental realities, before losing its way when reality returns.

Whitney, played by Jessica Tidd, loves her imaginary world. She’s a controller who’s keeps her fear of other people’s judgment at bay by spinning her own endlessly elaborate fantasy universe that includes 72 alien-human hybrid races, and populating it with 47 major characters and 130 minor characters, including the high priest of a dark cult of demon-worshipping opera singers who has three sons (Mikor, Sebastian and Dorrick), she explains to Max. “Should I list those and provide brief biographies?”

Thankfully, he declines the offer. Whitney wants to share as much about her alternative worlds as possible because if the treatment works, “it’s going to die. I’m going to lose it. And no one will ever know about it.” It’s fun and safe to be master of your own universe, and if her mom didn’t insist, she’d have no reason to leave it. In Whitney’s private world, she can “rewind” when things go awry, go back in time and re-start a sequence so that it goes in another direction. But “there are no rewinds” in the real world,“ she says.

By contrast, Max’s powerfully grim, austere world (which I won’t reveal here) is so chilling that he’s highly motivated to leave it, but is caught between his desire to escape and the responsibility he feels to his imagined characters. Rigid, rule bound, and repressed, “I don’t talk about my world,” he tells her up front. “Feelings do not come into this.”

But inevitably, he must, and they do, especially after the pills begin to work. The three scenes, punctuated by brief blackouts (the play runs 90 minutes without intermission), take place at day 2, 18 and 42 of their treatment cycle. Much of their first-scene conflict involves Whitney’s attempts to draw Max (played by Nathan Dunkin) out by cajoling details of his world from him while simultaneously, often insufferably, revealing her own. Here, Tidd’s antic, vulnerable performance — more manic than schizophrenic — made me feel Whitney’s fear and ambivalence about losing her precious creations to the world-destroying pills she’s forced to take.

For a self-described narcissist, though, she sure displays a lot of interest in eliciting descriptions of his world, even before the drugs start to presumably dilute her self-centeredness. She seems less under the spell of what the script terms “schizoid personality disorder” than a mild bipolar condition — and the plot’s need to tell the audience what’s going on inside both their heads. That makes for an unnecessarily protracted and pedantic set up to explain exactly how we got here before any real action happens. How much stronger to start in medias res, inside their fantasy worlds, and then work in the explanation as the extended scene unfolded.

Interest and pace picked up toward the end of scene 1 and throughout scene 2, when Tidd nails the script’s witty humorous sequences, especially a turning point exchange in which they start off describing their imaginary creations — but wind up really talking about themselves. The time we spend in their respective universes provides the play’s most rewarding moments.

But then, we get an overlong, unconvincing third scene (which could have been a five minute coda) in which the two approaching-normal characters, finally about to complete the drug trial, painstakingly go through several possible scenarios for making a life together in the real world. It might have worked better to end the show after the second scene, when the characters tentatively resolve to try making a real human connection, without any expectation of ultimate success. By the time they finally make the choice posed at the outset — is it better to stay in an unreal world that gives your life meaning, or return to reality, with all its difficulties? — it feels more like an intellectual debate than a real emotional struggle.

Jessica Tidd and Nathan Dunkin in Badass Theatre’s production of Johnna Adams’s ‘World Builders.’ Photo:

That may be because both characters seem just a little too sympathetically sane, even before the meds take effect, to be as disabled as their recounted backstories claim. Whitney comes off as no more mentally ill than your average obsessive cosplayer or multi volume fantasy series enthusiast. Though his troubled mien suggests roiling internal disturbances, Max remains opaque. We never learn enough about his background (nor hers, for that matter), like childhood trauma or something else that would help us understand the source of his emotional needs. And while he doesn’t necessarily need to go full Rain Man, the role gives Dunkin and director Antonio Sonera just too little to work with.

As the drugs gradually take effect, even though World Builders doesn’t portray anything like, say, Flowers for Algernon’s dramatically changing personae, neither the script nor the actors demonstrate enough dramatic range to convincingly convey their evolving personalities. Even when the medication is supposedly working, for example, Max fails to react when Whitney says she loves him.

Director Sonera strives mightily to keep the actors, especially the manic Whitney, moving to avoid the static back and forth of two characters merely talking to each other for 90 minutes. Their changing positioning reflects their evolving relationship. Both move beautifully, Whitney transforming the lounge furniture into her stage, Max compulsively rearranging it all back to its original position.

Brief instrumental interludes between the two scene changes are the aural equivalent of the deliberately bland pastel watercolors on the walls of the patient lounge, calculated to relieve and soothe, but a missed opportunity to deepen, counterpoint, or enhance the story’s emotional journey.

Portraying on stage what true mental illness feels like inside is notoriously difficult. The requirements of drama and accuracy don’t always dovetail, and the dangers of sentimentalizing and oversimplifying ever loom. While World Builders doesn’t always avoid these pitfalls, Badass’s team, as in the company’s explosive earlier Invasion!, deserves credit for their conscientious and sometimes persuasive efforts in a thought-provoking play that poses really fascinating questions. But despite some absorbing and funny moments, what we see onstage just can’t match the drama happening in the characters’ heads.

World Builders by Johnna Adams continues through June 30 at Shaking The Tree Theatre, 823 SE Grant St, Portland. Tickets online or call 503-358-4660.

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