A young woman is in a hospital in a coma following a serious accident. As a nurse watches over her, beckoning her back to consciousness, and an estranged step-brother and step-sister (her only living relatives) bicker and fret, what does this young woman—Deon is her name—experience? That's one of the questions that Kimberly Pau's intriguing new play In Memory contemplates.
The work was created by Pau in collaboration with company members, and their modus operandi was to unleash a happy accident to discover something interesting about how traumatic memories affect our identity. The nature of the "accident" was the selection of four historical figures more or less randomly who would appear as characters in In Memory: the ones chosen are three fairly well-known individuals—Frederic Chopin, Georges Sand, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (of Sacco and Vanzetti fame)—along with another who was unfamiliar to me, Russell Blackwell, a 20th century American who was a political activist most notably involved in the Spanish Civil War. Deon encounters all four of these (dead) personages while she struggles to emerge from her coma; some of their real-life experiences may provide her with what she needs to be successful.
Pau's script is imaginative and filled with fascinating images. The world inside Deon's head is surreal and playful; at one point the characters all burst into a song whose lyrics are all palindromes. The "dream" figures of the dead Chopin, Sand, Vanzetti, and Blackwell are portrayed by live actors (though they sometimes speak in voiceover), while the "live" characters of the nurse and step-siblings are depicted as puppets (delightfully rendered by Daisy Payero, who also plays Blackwell). The effect is to create a visceral separation between what's going on inside Deon's head/body and what's occurring beyond it. Director Eric Mercado's concept for the hospital bed itself is also telling: the actors playing Chopin, Sand, and Vanzetti kneel on all fours to support Deon's body in these scenes.
There is one other character in the play, a bull who periodically invades Deon's dream-state. I'm not absolutely certain I understood the significance of this choice (why a bull?) but the transformation that it helps to bring about is vital.
Mercado uses lots of movement and ritual throughout the piece, including one sequence featuring huge red rings and another in which the characters simulate the flow of a river with a length of blue cloth. Each of these segments helps to define the world of the play as one of metaphor, where an understanding of one thing (like the injustice perpetrated against Sacco and Vanzetti) leads to a deeper realization of something else (like the sadnesses and tragedies that have dogged Deon in her life).
Like Open Up, Pau's last play, In Memory is haunting and whimsical and profound all at the same time; her capacity to conjure her characters' inner and outer states simultaneously on stage is pretty singular. Many of the ideas in this new piece are likely to stay with you long after the 50 minutes of the play itself have run their course.