Time-traveling comedy steers clear of Back to the Future turf
Published: July 27, 2011
By J-F Bibeau
Presented by the Theatrical Mining Co. at the Marion Copeland Theater at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland through July 31
They say the quiet ones are the ones you have to watch out for. Fantasy novelist and playwright J-F Bibeau is soft-spoken following the debut of Self, Inc., but his play—in which Bibeau also plays a supporting role—speaks its wisdom loud and clear. Part corporate farce and part existential drama, Self, Inc., presented by the Theatrical Mining Co. during the 30th season of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, offers a deceptively madcap look at one man’s struggle to live with himself.
Go ahead and take this in its most literal sense: In an imagined near future, when the nation’s capital is Glen Burnie (that one got a good laugh), accountant Francis Elfman (Brandon Gorin) manages to create a time machine. He is visited by Francis Elfman 2 (Carroll Haupt), who hails from five months in the future. Francis 2 looks just like Francis 1 (it’s amazing what a simple wig can do), but is radically different in personality—he’s blunt, a bit of a curmudgeon, and mysteriously resentful of Francis 1. Francis 1, on the other hand, is jaded and quietly indifferent toward his co-workers at Total Refuse, a trash-disposal plant.
The co-workers in question are a quirky bunch. There’s the heavyset married couple, Ludmilla and Aaron Gendron (Stacey Bonds and Micah Chalmer), whose bickering provides Shock Planters (Dale Henderson Jr.), the loud gay man, with ample material for his sassy one-liners. Bibeau’s Lemuel Drain is a bizarre fanatic who worships no god you’ve ever heard of and is always wearing interesting religious garb. Heading Total Refuse is President Helena Studs (Foxglove Zayuri), a rather stunning young lady with radical ideas about how to get her employees to cooperate and conform. The actors are charming. They tend to rush and stumble over their words, rendering some of the dialogue garbled—opening-night jitters, perhaps—but their enthusiasm transcends their blunders. Wilma Rogers (Tamika B. Roland), the janitor, is the slowest-talking and most hilarious character. Her stooped gait and deadpan delivery of lines that range from enlightened to nonsensical to erotic is priceless, and her entrance into any scene summons an automatic smile.
After having been bombarded with so many Back to the Future marathons on television, it’s refreshing to realize that Self, Inc. is about much more than using one’s time machine responsibly. In fact, it isn’t really about time travel at all, although the machine is used as a vehicle for slapstick episodes and metaphysical conundrums alike. The Francises are very funny together, especially when they’re distracting Total Refuse employees at opposite ends of the same room (we’ve watched similar scenes in other comedies involving twins and time travel, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing). The men’s coexistence also allows many a difficult question to arise. Faced with the grumpy, outspoken Francis 2, Francis 1 must puzzle over what it means to embody oneself when “oneself” is being embodied by two very different people.
Overarching everything are the corporate crises facing Total Refuse—Francis 2 warns Francis 1 of an impending takeover by Chick-fil-A—and Helena Studs’ obsession with enforcing workplace conformity. Not that she has to try very hard, for in Self Inc.’s time, individuality is not so much subversive as uninteresting—it simply doesn’t occur to people to find dignity in uniqueness. Controversy and taboo have become curios of the past, and Lemuel Drain meets only politeness when he declares that the reason he must keep his eyes closed all day long is that he is observing a religious rite. Most effective is a scene in which Shock Planters describes homosexuality as “just a state of being,” and becomes almost nostalgic for the days in which displays of gay pride were at all necessary.
As the characters increasingly suspect that they are all becoming one and the same person, they talk themselves through the issue, stealing some of the joy of analysis away from the audience. Still, Self, Inc. doesn’t seem self-indulgent. The commentary justifies the play’s frivolity, neatly paralleling Francis 1’s approach to the five-month mark. It’s ridiculous, but it makes you think, and that’s the proper way to use a time machine.
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