Returning to Albert Joseph, a dystopian world premiere by the Satori Group, is less a story than a tone. It begins with urgent banging and yelling right below our feet, underneath the steep wooden risers the audience is sitting on. Andrea (LoraBeth Barr) rushes in, dragging a wounded Leo (Quinn Franzen), and pleads into a microphone for some unseen people to give them shelter: "You know me. Please. Let us in. I don't know how long we have."
Albert Joseph withholds more information than it gives, but we cobble together a rough sense of what's happening from Andrea's supplication: "I was at the gathering! I saw Panther die... You know I'd never turn. Ever. I will always fight... Just let us in." All she gets is silence, so she and Leo explain further with the help of flashbacks, which are the production's most technically elegant work. The barely conscious Leo resurrects himself to be the goofy guy who first showed up to the "gathering," then abruptly faints back into Andrea's arms when we zoom back to the present. Crisp lighting and sound design by Marnie Cummings and Evan Mosher also do a lot of heavy lifting to make these jump cuts distinctive.
Andrea is a flinty revolutionary, and Leo is a chipper, mostly clueless sweetheart who showed up at the "gathering" because "I was just hoping to care about a thing." But caring can be dangerous—a bunch of "statist" soldiers with guns and uniforms stormed the meeting, killed the speaker, and "cleaved" Leo's brain with a dementia-inducing weapon. Once he's been cleaved, Leo has long stretches of uncomprehending silence, bursts of lucidity, and moments when he's living through some earlier part of his life. Leo and Andrea run, hole up in an abandoned school—the West Newton Albert Joseph Institute for Elementary Learning—and have broken, expository conversations about themselves and the Big Brother–like state they're living in. Their language is sometimes mannered, a conceit of this futuristic world created by playwright Spike Friedman. Men "bestride the lands," one event happens "soon thereafter" another, and Andrea describes Leo as "a beam of white light instead of a ball of hot hate."
But Friedman's poetic obscurity reveals things as well. His characters' recurring discussion of "caring" begins to sound like a revolutionary proposition that can bind together two lovers or a rebel army—or an army of lovers. But "the statists," and their illusory figurehead Albert Joseph, keep people from caring by making them comfortable. "Anyone can playact at dissent," Andrea says at one point, addressing some unseen "statist" enemies. "Pretend like they care. But you offer everything—warmth, comfort safety—that to really care... is impossible." To be uncomfortable is to begin to learn how to care, Albert Joseph argues, and caring is subversive. In another esoteric passage, one of the play's best, Leo remembers the last time he cared about something—as a child, he cared about boats. He spins this into a rhapsody about how Andrea and he might have met and bonded in love and rebellion over boats:
You would hold my hand, and as the Anti-Nautical forces rained bottles down on our heads first, followed by bullets, followed by mortars that would explode the matter that makes us distinct from the rest of the world, from those who haven't even heard of boats, from those who think boats are a fairy tale made up to scare children into landlocked thought, there would be an instance when all of our caring would be all of existence, and in that moment we would be able to go forward, back to our house, we'd have a house, and we would be able to live together. Simply. And then we would have children.
Despite its gorgeous flourishes, the obscurity of Returning to Albert Joseph makes it difficult to warm up to its abstracted characters whose inner workings remain as difficult to parse as the world they live in—with all their talk of caring, it sometimes requires effort to care about them. And while the first act was bracingly strange but self-contained, the second act is a tedious cipher that feels as long as it is confusing. Andrea has a long conversation with a projected image of Albert Joseph, and Leo appears, speaking fragments of their lines from act one. Is she dying? Is her brain being cleaved? Is act two just an impressionistic ghost of what we've already seen? It's difficult to say. The way they ushered us out at intermission made me think the play was over. In retrospect, that would have been a fine place to end.