Variations on Chaos
Run of the Mill offers a skillfully handled look at disorder
Published: April 20, 2011
Variations on Chaos
Run of the Mill Theater
Onetwothreefourfive. That’s quintuplets, all finally put down to sleep. Home is finally quiet, though the parents—Judith (Emma Healey) and Gary (Justin Isett)—look like they’ve just survived wave after wave after wave of full-frontal military assault. Judith, standing in her robe and slippers, slightly sways. She realizes she can’t stop doing the “baby rock,” a repetitive-stress motion her muscle memory just keeps replicating in order to survive.
They’re alone, no assistance from a phalanx of nurses. It’s just them and their five children, at home, trying to figure out this whole parenting thing. And when in doubt about something, Judith and Gary quickly check their parenting guides and online resources. We do, you know, live in a culture that produces how-to/self-help guides for whatever life moment you may be facing. Weight loss. Better sex. How to land Mr. Right. How to seduce women. How to make money. How to save money. How to turn your saved money into more money. And, even though human beings have been reproducing for at least a hot minute, miles and miles of text about baby-making, baby-having, and parenting—all filled with statistics to inform prospective/new parents about the probabilities facing their offspring. And there’s nothing quite as debilitating as a little information.
So when Judith notices a red spot on one of her children’s cheeks and tells Gary that she thinks it’s herpes—and points him to the book that confirms this suspicion—they dive headlong into the paranoia of statistics overload. One out of every 10 children will have to deal with childhood obesity. Only one out of five (or something) is going to succeed academically. One may be good at sports. One may be . . . an artist? (Judith cringes.) But that’s not all, oh no. Soon the stats are creating more and more and more ludicrous scenarios for the parental unit to freak out about: One of their children is likely to become addicted to marijuana. One is likely to drop out of school and end up living at home. One is likely to be Chinese.
Welcome to 2011’s installment of Run of the Mill Theater’s ingeniously playful Variations project. Launched in 2005 as a way to prod local playwrights into exploring a theme in short one-acts, over the years the Variations programs—on Desire, on Fear, on Justice, etc.—have birthed a wide variety of narratives that loosely come together in one dependably engaging night of smorgasbord theater-going. Don’t like one play? Wait a moment, something else will start soon.
This year’s Variations on Chaos offers a rather freewheeling thematic hub. The playwrights—John J. Conley, Kevin Kostic (who wrote the above “One Out of Five”), Susan M. McCarty, J-F Bibeau, Laura Merrill, Clarinda Harriss, Matthew Smith, Joe Dennison, and Ben Hoover—approach the idea from a variety of angles. Some embrace chaos as organized disorder. Some riff on ideas of chaos theory and its interrelational narrative sparks. Some aim straight for the apeshit.
Bibeau’s “In Theory” aims for just that sort of monkey business. Its one joke is somewhat too liberally spread into a short comedy of manners about literary authenticity—monkeys Coco (Emma Healey) and Floyd (Ben Hoover) get exposed as frauds on an entertainment talk show—but its coy inversions of the familiar (monkeys at work behaving like monkeys, monkeys on a coffee break behaving like working stiffs) give it a cartoonish playfulness.
Outright insanity is better served by McCarty’s “Where Will We Go, What Will We Do?” and Merrill’s “The Great Unspeakable Tragedy of the Poorly Made Soup.” In the former, a couple—Frank (Isett) and Josie (Beverly Shannon)—hysterically respond to the news that gays can legally marry, and Isett and Shannon gamely act through the roof with their caricatures of fear. She faints, he’s preparing to flee to the wilderness, and the overall scene plays out as if it was lifted from a zombie flick and their safe homestead was under undead attack. You hope there aren’t reactionaries this terrified of something as nonthreatening as marriage equality in this great nation but, well, you never know.
Creative Director Alec Lawson does a smart job with “Soup,” the sort of short that could easily nosedive into boilerplate sketch comedy. Two couples—Ben (Isett) and Natalie (Sarah Heiderman), Jude (Phil Doccolo) and Tamar (Healey)—are trying to enjoy a nice evening out together, but their over-familiarity with each other and efforts to maintain order spiral into preposterous confrontations, spikes of anger, absurd outbursts, and tenuous peace accords. It’s a witty script of ordinary absurdity deftly handled by an ensemble who understands how to get the most out of it.
And that’s always one of the more entertaining aspects of the Variations projects. In one night you get to watch performers create a number of different characters as casually as if trying on new clothes, and you inevitably leave with new faces to watch. Isett is a flexible workhorse, able to move from physical comedian to chest-puffing dude to hysterical incompetent to wronged man as the scene calls for, and he does so with convincing versatility. Best, he’s got great vocal control, jumping from stentorian command to vulnerable hush without ever losing the ability to project.
Heiderman also knows how to tweak her voice to suit the material. In Chaos’ opening short, Conley’s “Farewell to Hippocrates,” three women doctors, wearing lab coats and hooded capes, recite the classical Hippocratic Oath—and proceed to unmask just how common it is today for doctors to do things they’ve sworn not to. In this short, Heiderman’s tone adds a pithy edge of self-awareness to her lines in a way that amplifies opportunism. Later, in “Soup,” she gives her Natalie that singsong pleasantness of a too-kind woman, and then proceeds to peel back the layers of Natalie’s neuroses to show how this woman insufficiently hides her anxieties in a translucent skein of pleasantries. And in this exposed nerve of a woman, Heiderman impressively turns in a near-constant stream of “I’m sorry” apologies into something like a desperate cry for help.
Healey, though, impresses the most over the course of the evening. She skips from the sleep-deprived mother Judith in “One Out of Five” to the whimsically shrewed monkey Coco in “In Theory” to the vocally combative Tamar in “Soup” all before intermission, saving her most restrained performance for the more serious-minded plays of the night’s second half. In Dennison’s schematic “First Day,” Healey plays a cadet assigned to Shannon’s veteran guard of some sort. The cadet is there to learn the ropes of protecting those “over there” from a different “over there”: the job description is, simply, to maintain the integrity of the perimeter. And while the play moves as you might suspect—an unseen threat never quite as damaging as the threat you can see—in a very short running time Healey winningly makes her naive, eager student mature into the sort of defender the assignment requires. ■
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