A curious combination of gritty character study and fantasy-absurdism, Liza Birkenmeier‘s the hollower presents troubled characters who feel painfully real. Grippingly acted under Kristy Dodson’s agile direction, it has two parallel narratives. Bit (Reyna de Courcy), a high-school junior in a program for “gifted students with executive functioning issues,” has been placed under the guardianship of Otto, a shy lesbian (Patrena Murray) approaching middle age, recently abandoned by her partner and living a nunlike existence. Bit is struggling to collaborate with a dismissive, tightly wound senior, the weirdly named Wilkin Rush George III (Samuel Im) on a film project for school, while Otto entertains fantasies of being profiled for a podcast run by a wacky, vaguely sinister host (Ryan Wesley Stinnett) who wears a pig puppet on his hand and abuses his silent, masked assistant.
You could call Bit an extreme case of edgy, hyperactive maladjustment and Otto an equally severe one of withdrawal from society. But if they’re extreme, they’re not unrealistically so. Most of us have met people much like Bit and Otto, and Birkenmeier has felt their pulses, gotten deep into their heads, and delivered all-too-real portraits. Otto compulsively listens to war reports on the radio and silently puts up with Bit’s cruel insults. Yet we see her reluctantly warming to her charge. And her otherwise dulled-looking expression brightens sweetly when the podcaster makes her feel interesting and important.
Bit blurts out her feelings in shuddery song, staggers about the kitchen in stiletto heels and fluorescent-colored wigs, and careens between insulting Otto and cozying up to her. On the one hand, she doesn’t know how to act with people. Yet she’s terribly cognizant of the deeper realities. She knows her “funeral doom doo-wop” band is terrible. (It is, and entertainingly so.) She feels deeply for the colonial-era street women she’s depicting in the claymation film she’s fitfully creating with Wilkin. She says things people don’t usually express and tells them like they are. (To Otto: “You’ve done a really good job of bonding with me tonight.”)
While we see Otto developing a quiet parental affection for Bit, it’s Wilkin who nails Bit’s trouble: “You have a desperate vibe and someone is going to take advantage of you.” He’s clearly tempted to do so himself, but equally clearly doesn’t want to see her get hurt. We have all also met people like him: perceptive and intelligent, essentially good-hearted, but cloaking their feelings in intellectual arguments. Arrogantly artsy, he is so ready to be put in his place by someone who’s seen more of the real world.
Stinnett’s Pigman is entertaining in a vacuum, but the podcast storyline lacks the punch of the main Bit narrative. It enlightens us as to Otto’s character and shows us her warmer side, which is important. But for all its absurd trappings and paraphernalia and despite Stinnett’s rabid energy, it lacks narrative drive. Fortunately these scenes are fairly short, so Bit’s story doesn’t lose its momentum. the hollower is perceptively imagined, lovingly staged, beautifully acted, and definitely different. See this New Light Theater Project world premiere production before its brief run at the ends June 9.