When circumstances terrorize you beyond the brink of functional reality into a dream-state where you no longer apprehend the truth, how do you find your way back? Indeed, can you find your way back?
Ken Urban’s amazing play The Awake directed by Adam Fitzgerald deals with three individuals, Nate (Maulik Pancholy), Malcolm (Andy Phelan), and Gabrielle (Lori Prince) who are caught in a labyrinth of nightmares which threaten to destroy them. To extricate themselves, they must face a deeper horror over which they have no control. The characters have created personality constructs that are fluid enough to help them dodge the painful memories of past experiences. But the constructs have made them unaware, not only of what has happened but of what they are doing. Alone, they cannot find their way to peace or awareness. It will take a catalyst to help them. How they eventually find their way, pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and move forward on a journey of hope is the subject of The Awake. But first, the individuals must acknowledge reality. Then they must live with that awareness.
In The Awake we are exposed to an intricate and perplexing confluence of stories related by Nate, Malcolm and Gabrielle. For them home is no longer a place of refuge or comfort because they cannot fathom where their nightmares end and the terror of reality begins. All are in an extreme state of stress. In rapid fire, one after the other shares their story on center stage, a rectangular space braced by the audience on two sides. Individually, they relate their traumatizing experiences. As the play progresses, we watch them struggle through the fog of confusion. Eventually they meet up with one another through a seemingly random set of circumstances. These meetings serve as the catalyst to gradually awaken them.
The three story lines appear to run concurrently, but since Urban is playing with the audience, we are never sure what is “real.” The characters’ emotions seem real. Are the experiences that create these emotions real? During their storytelling, we note that something is not quite right. They contradict themselves, especially when they interact with other characters, for example family members and work colleagues (who, too, might not be real). However, we recognize that to the extent individuals’ fantasy lives and belief systems are real, we must believe these individuals, even though we cannot judge their reality (a thematic element). Urban has cleverly created this dissonance by showing us that we must not trust Nate, Gabrielle or Malcolm. We must go on the wild ride they take us to wherever, and evaluate after we receive more information.
With sustained suspense throughout, Urban brilliantly challenges us to figure out which part of the characters’ lives we can reliably know. We see that each suffers through a cataclysm from which he or she is attempting to escape. We watch each confront a personal horror in virtual time. With active, descriptive language/dialogue, Urban compels us to experience their ongoing situations with them. We are confused, anxious and uncomfortable. So are the characters. Urban has led us to unfamiliar territory. The play’s innovative plot structure is a conundrum woven to engage and involve, making us yearn along with the characters to awaken from the nightmare and know what is true.
But if life is indeed a dream, as Calderon de la Barca suggested in the 17th century play Life is a Dream, to what extent are Nate, Gabrielle and Malcolm intentionally sleeping? Or are they part of some larger plan of anesthetization and control by others, as Urban quietly implies? Whether they prefer the nightmare to being awake is another issue which is reconciled for the characters by the end of The Awake. Urban also leaves us to puzzle out whether our own nightmare issues are resolved.
The actors portray the characters with fervent urgency, especially Nate, the Canadian of Middle Eastern descent, skillfully played by Maulik Pancholy. Pancholy was the most believable throughout and the most heartfelt in his revelatory scene with Andy Phelan as Malcolm, the 20-something who must confront death after living a sheltered existence. Urban’s characters’ labyrinths are complicated. They require a range of emotions and progressions of believability; the characters give the appearance of being truthful but must also convey that they are muddled and perhaps obfuscating. They must show they are uncomfortable during various stages of their “truthfulness.” Lori Prince as Gabrielle, the housewife/actress who suspects her husband of shady deeds, is exceptional in convincing us she was not convincing herself as a “Russian actress,” her faux personality construct. Phelan and Pancholy beautifully negotiate the various segments of their character’s progression from hysteria to a moderate balance.
The rest of the ensemble plays an effective counterpoint, taking on the roles of different characters (husband,mother, co-workers, etc.) These are Jeff Biehl, Jocelyn Kuritsky, Miranda Jackel, and Dee Nelson, who tormented Nate, Lori and Malcolm and elucidated their dream-states. Adam Fitzgerald’s direction keeps the audience enthralled with a minimalistic, spare set. The mirrored floor provides interesting grounding for the lighting design and is useful in conveying symbols and themes. The effective staging adds intensity and menace to the dramatic scenes as does the sound – the harsh rumblings, bangings and crashes. The shrouded, shadowy costumed figure (a great choice by costume designer Lisa Zinni) threatening Nate is fearsome, almost Minotaur-like without the horns. All kudos to Zinni, Travis McHale (Lighting Designer), Christian Frederickson (Sound Designer), and David L. Arsenault (Scenic Designer) for enhancing Fitzgerald’s vision.
The play is running until September 8 at 59E59 Theatres.