EXITheatre at Sand Point Naval Base, 851-6730. Closing this weekend.
The way EXITheatre's press materials describe the troupe sounds like that of a million other new theater groups, full of words like "collaboration" and "exploring boundaries," and "non-theatrical spaces"--generic terms that all too often translate into mushy floundering. Then there's the dreaded term "Viewpoints," a system of breaking theater into component parts; this may be a perfectly useful academic tool, but when used to create theater, it usually results in something dull and self-important.
On top of all that, EXITheatre's Undo is about creation myths. And though I love fairy tales and mythology in general, creation myths (stories that attempt to explain how the universe and everything in it came to exist) are more about rationalizing reality than telling a story; so I didn't expect to like Undo.
I entered the cavernous Sand Point hangar, sat on a milk crate with a foam pad, and waited patiently in front of a crudely hung patchwork curtain. A hodgepodge of material unfolded before me: One scene was a curious self-parody; the actors portrayed painfully self-important or overeager actors, telling a hokey creation story more or less about the Internet, full of puns about Microsoft and dot-coms in general. Another section placed the actors in scattered seats, reciting the impoverished dialogue used in e-mail conversations. In another sequence, the cast sang a bunch of television theme songs, one after the other, while flopping around on a rolling couch.
But a description of the material doesn't accurately describe my experience, because the textual substance of Undo--what one might normally consider the content--is its weakest element (which is not to say it was altogether bad). Take, for example, the theme song sequence. To begin with, it suggests that these TV shows are our contemporary mythology--not a surprising notion, even hackneyed. But the context of that idea brought out the intense cravings of each song, be it for material success, acceptance, or friendship--the naked need of these songs became a little alarming. And then there was simply the high quality of the singing.
Again and again, I felt conceptually annoyed by Undo, and yet drawn in emotionally and sensually. The staging was generally excellent; it's one of the most successful examples I've seen of moving the audience from place to place, partly because the enormous space was manipulated by curtains and light in consistently intriguing ways, partly because the actors created an atmosphere of anticipation. They were having a good time, so I wanted to join in; they seemed eager to do the next thing, and so I did, too. The infectiousness of the group was remarkable. When individual performances stood out (for example, Frances Kao channeled her inner fourth-grader with particular delight as she manipulated the other actors into a living sculpture), they didn't make others in the cast seem weaker. It's impossible to pinpoint exactly what makes an ensemble different from any collection of actors, but this group had that ineffable synergy.
Undo epitomizes theater created by group "investigation." With so many different approaches to the ostensible subject matter, none of them can take any vivid shape--but the personal investment of everyone involved results in rich, engaging sights and sounds that have only a glancing connection to the theme. I wonder what Undo would have been like if EXITheatre had jettisoned some of the more broad and obvious genuflections toward coherence, and simply let the audience form its own ideas. On the other hand, maybe the aspects I enjoyed most about this show were accentuated by the friction of trying to bring these scenes in line with what I'd been told the show was about.
Regardless, directors Miriam Goodman-Miller and Mike Lindgren are aggressively pursuing what makes theater different from television or film, and they're doing so with vigor, a genuine sense of whimsy, and a thankful lack of pretension. Theatergoers who normally shy away from "experimental theater" may find the performers of Undo charming enough to make a nonlinear show both accessible and enjoyable.