nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 2, 2007
Alec Duffy's new theatre piece Dysphoria is a remarkable work of theatrical imagination. In it, Duffy and his collaborators create a vivid, detailed, evocative world that's as removed from our own as its title suggests—they succeed in conjuring an off-kilter, disorienting environment where we can study a sort of society in microcosm. It's both entertaining and intellectually invigorating (which won't surprise you if you seen any of Duffy's earlier work).
The premise of Dysphoria is that five members of a religious community are being sent to form a colony in outer space. Duffy wisely doesn't flesh out the details of this idea too much, because the sci-fi trappings are merely a framework for what he really intends to explore here. Instead, the focus is on the five individuals themselves: Braden, a young man who is the group's spiritual leader (and who, we discern, is a clone of the original founder of this sect); Leni, a very young woman who has been selected to be Braden's wife; Tomo, a Japanese man involved with Leni; Anya, an older woman who is teacher to all the others; and Sergei, a Russian (from New Jersey) who is infatuated with Anya.
I've identified the characters in terms of their relations to one another, but that's not the only way to define them. Each of them has a specific function in this mission, the objective of which seems to be as much to learn how to live and work together as it is to actually populate some distant planet. One of the most intriguing things about Dysphoria is how unsure we are as to exactly where these characters are, or how much time passes during the play. They're clearly in training for their voyage. But are they on Earth in some sort of laboratory, or someplace else? Are we watching a typical day, or do days, weeks, or even months elapse during this play? True to the sentiment of the title, Duffy never lets us know for certain.
What we do know is that there's a lot of dysfunction in this group, a lot of tension and unresolved conflict. The root causes are the usual ones: love, power, and sometimes both.
We watch this quintet in work, repose, conversation, debate, ritual, and prayer. Most of what they do has been invented from whole cloth by Duffy and his team, and it's delightful in its detail and wit.
The set, by Justin Townsend (with assists from Jane Stein and Andreea Mincic) is bright and airy and stunningly original—the most inviting landscape I've ever seen in the Ontological space. Jessica Pabst's costumes are simple but witty; Miranda Hardy's lighting and Dave Malloy's sound are invaluable in further creating the strange world where Dysphoria unfurls.
The five actors—David Frank, Amy Laird Webb, Masayasu Nakanishi, Nisi Sturgis, and Marshall York—all do fine and admirable work.
Ultimately Duffy avoids ideology here, though intimations of some vaguely sinister "they" who make key decisions for the group (and who made the cloned Brader) have a 1984ish quality; but the conclusion of Dysphoria, neither utopian nor dystopian, suggests authentic hopefulness and optimism for these five humans and thus, by extension, for all of us. And I think finally that's what I liked most of all about this innovative, unusual work.