Still-Life with runner / Waking Up
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 15, 2005
On stage are two runners. One of them is on a treadmill, running but of course never arriving anywhere. He will run for the entire length of the play—about 50 minutes or so. We'll always see him; he will always be present, aware of the events playing out elsewhere on the stage and in the play, but never in them. Is he running toward something, or away from something?
The other, on the stage itself, runs only fitfully; most of the time, he darts around his own thoughts and memories. We understand instantly that he's the mind, or subconscious, of the physical runner (i.e., the guy on the treadmill). We understand, too, that he IS heading somewhere; sifting through images and flashes and moments stored up in his brain in an effort to gain mastery over the thing he is running from.
They're in a race, these two halves of a single man. Literally and figuratively. The race in objective reality is one he organized himself, in honor of his paraplegic brother. It's a five-mile marathon, and it's not clear that he's up to it. Will he get the second and then third winds that he needs to keep pushing on?
The other race, the one in the runner's head, is even trickier, because it's on an obstacle course that's littered with phantom images of his smothering, hyper-religious mother; his remote, emotionally empty father; his younger, wheelchair-bound brother; his annoying sister—all of them crashing into and colliding with him as he tries to negotiate through and past them. In his vision, the mother is a Moth, flitting about rather cloyingly; the father is just Farther, a soulless bureaucrat who carries a toilet seat behind him. The sister is a Cyst, emblemized by a door in a doorframe that she takes with her everywhere, ready to slam it whenever she doesn't get her way, which is most of the time.
Playwright/co-director Steven Gridley and his collaborator Jacob Titus have created a remarkable theatrical world for Still-life with runner, filled with lots of wondrous, unexpected touches and plenty of aural and visual symbolism. It's all in the service of getting deep into the mind of their troubled protagonist, that poor, mostly silent guy who runs and runs and runs on that treadmill. I've never seen a mind so vividly or viscerally laid bare on stage: the fruits of this particular collaboration (Gridley and Titus did the design as well, and work the sound and light boards live; costumes are by Rabiah Troncelliti) are breathtaking in the brilliance of their achievement. All—or almost all; can we ever know everything about what's going on inside our brains?—is revealed by play's end. (Don't think I'm going to spoil it by telling you.)
Seven actors perform Still-life with runner, but none is asked to do more than Jeffrey Horne, Spring Theatreworks' artistic director, who is the lost soul on the treadmill. What's extraordinary about Horne's work here is not that he runs in place for more than three-quarters of an hour without stopping, but that his acting never lets up—his reactions and movements are always specific, always in the moment, always in touch with everyone else in the room, actors and audience, even though none of them can interact with him in any way, according to the play's rules of engagement. It's a spectacularly controlled performance, not to mention an obviously physically draining one.
Jesse Erbel is Horne's alter ego in the piece, and he's excellent; the others in the company, all splendid, are David Wylie (as the brother), Douglas Simpson (father), Erin Treadway (mother), Sharon Floyd (sister), and Eric McGregor as a Monster who physically embodies that which Horne's character is running away from. This is sensational, jolting, involving theatre—exactly what I've come to expect from the adventurous folks at Spring Theatreworks.
After a brief intermission, a second short play, Titus's Waking Up, rounds out the evening. This is more physical/movement piece than traditional drama; it's much more abstract and much less specific than Still-life with runner. A man in an orange jumpsuit (a prisoner?) narrates most of it, which appears to be memories of a childhood whose troubles are eventually revealed to be rooted in abuse. The effect of the play is that of a disturbing anxiety dream (as opposed to a nightmare): there are funny surreal moments intertwined with scary and/or jolting ones. Characters include a snake and a rooster (smartly realized by actors Erin Treadway and Trisha Henson, respectively). I can't say that I fully understood Waking Up, but it's certainly an arresting work of theatre, and an intriguing counterpoint to Still-life with runner.