Entertainment » Theatre

rogerandtom

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Apr 3, 2012
Andrew Rhodes and Anna Waldron star in ’rogerandtom,’ continuing through April 7 at Davis Square Theater in Somerville
Andrew Rhodes and Anna Waldron star in ’rogerandtom,’ continuing through April 7 at Davis Square Theater in Somerville  (Source:Simple Machine)

The play "rogerandtom," which is the inaugural production of the new theater company Simple Machine, was evidently inspired by an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," in which Captain Picard visits the Holodeck (a high-tech rec room where holographic images can re-create any time period or scenario) and, after a suitably perilous adventure, has a brief but philosophical discussion with one of the characters from the "holo-novel" he's been participating in.

I recall the episode in question; it won a Peabody Award. The poignant question that ended the episode (which was entitled "The Big Goodbye") was whether the holographic, fictional character, in shock at the revelation that his world was not real, would continue to exist in some parallel universe once the holodeck was shut down.

Theatrical spaces are not holodecks, of course, but the capacity of the human imagination more or less fulfills the same function. When an audience watches a group of actors on a set inhabiting their characters and interpreting their lines, there's an unspoken agreement that we have all entered into a temporary world outside of business as usual. What we are seeing is an artistic representation, but we agree to believe in the reality of it for a while.

Julien Schwab's play marks out the "fourth wall" with masking tape, and then breaks it down by turning the audience and the set into part of the story. As Richard (Stephen Radochia) and Penny (Anna Waldron) go through the awkward steps of a breakup, they discuss a new play by Penny's brother, Tom, and the hopes that Tom holds out that Penny's other brother, Roger (Andrew Rhodes), will join her at the play's premiere. Roger and Tom have been estranged for nearly a decade; in that time, Tom has written play after play about fraternal relationships gone wrong, hoping that Roger will clue into the message he's sending out and show some sign of willingness for a reconciliation.

But when Roger becomes an unwilling part of the play, he has to wrap his head around a strange truth. Penny does not exist; Roger and Tom have no sister in real life. To Penny, this is immaterial, because the character has a life of her own. To her, the masking tape that marks out the dimensions of her apartment are solid walls. Richard (or William, as Roger knows him) is an actor who knows that this is all theater. Roger only barely tolerates being brought into the show, describing it as his "worst nightmare."

So what happens when one person in the little universe of the theatrical space does not enter into the agreement to believe in the reality of a play? Is he free to assert his own reality apart from the dictates of the script? Or are there forces that will keep him there, insisting that he play his part even if he doesn't buy into it?

The play's message is pretty blunt; as Penny, who starts to catch on to the nature of her predicament (she's fictitious, but what does that mean? Is she real? Is she imaginary?), notes, what we perceive is largely a matter of what we convince ourselves is there for us to see, hear, and interact with. With that, we are back to the power of imagination, which not only convinces us for a short time that a play is real, but convinces us pretty much for our entire lives that the fictions we install in our interpretation of the world around us are genuine and true. Hey: You have gotta get through the day somehow, right?

But the play has a few further reality-bending twists to throw at us. By the end, if we've managed to stay in the state of suspended disbelief required by narrative art forms like books, movies, and plays, we in the audience also might start to doubt the very nature of our existence.

But it takes some dedication to the idea of suspending disbelief to get there. "rogerandtom" is more like an episode of "The Twilight Zone," where strange things happen because, well, it's the Twilight Zone, than it resembles an episode of "Star Trek," in which some element of technology has to account for odd situations. Just how does a fictional character become real? Well, she's created by an actress. But how, exactly, does that duality of real actress and fictional character work?

"You love your family," Penny is told at one point. "But this is the only place you can be with them." Meaning what, exactly? Just where is this magical space? The stage? Her imagination? The imagination of Tom, the playwright? Is all this taking place in some sort of meta-fictional pocket universe? (When scenes start replaying, you get the sense that we're supposed to be in a closed, but unbounded, space-time continuum, a worthy concept of both "Star Trek" and "The Twilight Zone.") It's all maddeningly vague, and though "rogerandtom" offers plenty of food for thought, it lacks something at its center, some internal bit of scaffolding that would make the piece stand up on its own and not be so reliant on the audience's charitable impulses. As it is, you have to work a little too hard to enter, and stay in, this particular fictional dimension.

The actors and the direction make up for a lot, though. Andrew Rhodes puts an exasperated spin on Roger, giving the play's best jokes a punch. (Handed a beer bottle that contains no beer, Rhodes turns the prop into a moment of comic gold.) Radochia is right at home in this sort of play, having brought a similar sense of the everyday to his role in "Dark Matters," last fall's play about alien abduction from the Science Fiction Theatre Company. Anna Waldron has the hardest job as the fictional character discovering that she's not a real person. Waldron gives Penny pluck, courage, and, yes, poignancy.

Director Stephen Libby carefully balances this production on several cusps. "rogerandtom" doesn't feel like fantasy, sci-fi, or heavy-handed metaphor. It feels like a trip through a pretzel-shaped tunnel lined with funhouse mirrors--and that might be the best shape for the play to take on.

"rogerandtom" continues through April 7 at Davis Square Theater in Somerville. For further information, please visit www.simplemachinetheatre.com

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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