Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
What If is presented in two very different acts. The first offers up theater using the motif of the messenger, a herald from on high who observes the procession of human experiences and takes up a segment of what is seen, fashioning it into a story told in detailed, specific narrative. The purpose here may be for those who receive the messagethe audienceto understand our shared past and present, or to build empathy for those whose past or present experience is different than our own, or to sound a cautionary alarm to prepare us for what lies ahead.
Act one was written by Steven Epp, who also performs the solo piece. Sauntering out on a bare stage in the cavernous Lab Theater with a backpack peeking over his shoulders, Epp greets us as himself, delivering the standard "turn off anything that makes noise" and "there will be an intermission" kind of announcements from the stage. He talks about the joy of acting, how acting involves imagining one's self into the life of another, feeling and reacting as that other would. For example, what if ... and almost without us knowing it has happened, he becomes someone else. With a tousling of his hair, and a pair of eyeglasses and jacket pulled out of the backpack, he becomes a Syrian refugee in Paris.
We see this professor of anthropology's harrowing years of isolation, hiding from bombs in Aleppo, the cosmopolitan city reduced to rubble by years of civil war. We see his arrival in Marseilles, where he is made to feel unwelcome. In Paris he gets work at the Notre Dame Cathedral, unloading cartons full of communion wafers or, as he calls them, "Jesus cookies." The irony of this Syrian refugee working at Notre Dame is not lost on him, as he mimics the act of prayer in different faithsIslam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhismall bowing steeply forward, and sums up that all prayer "Is good for the back." He is buoyed by the notion that things could always be worse.
Then, as if to demonstrate this, our Syrian refugee sees a photo in the newspaper of an eleven-year-old girl afloat on the roof of her house, detached from the rest of the house in the wake of epic floods washing over Nebraska. The refugee wonders "What if?" and transforms himself into this girl, as Epp pushes his hair back with a girl's headband and pulls down a concealed plaid Catholic school skirt. The girl, Norma, is a spitfire who prizes toughness and is cynical about religion. For example, when she tells her father the flood is due to climate change, and he retorts, "no, it's the will of God, because God is mad about gay people," she fires back "It's science dad, don't be so fucking stupid."
Epp switches back and forth between these two people, suffering in very different cataclysms half a world apart, with miraculous common threads revealed in the unlikely form of a handful of sesame seeds and the artful murmurations of starlings. The revelation of our common humanity is powerfully moving, almost enough to find a measure of grace in the horrors faced by these two completely different individuals, both made real to us by Epp's mastery of the art of acting.
From the moment of their vaudevillian entrance on stage, these two sublime actors are "on." They mug for the audience and for each other and, in a series of antic skits, give us two histories of civilization. One goes back to our early non-human ancestors as they encounter fire, sex, aggression, territoriality, and nationalism, equating the current spate of nationalistic movements around the world to the impulses of the "lizard brain" inheritance we carry from those early ancestors. Their characterization is bawdy, brash, and decidedly without nuance, offering sweeping depictions of the ungainly march of human progress from ape to our current specimens.
Their second history is a riff on the creation of the world as found in the Book of Genesis, with Keepers and Agnew quarrelling over who gets to play God until they decide that they'll both be God. For no discernible reason other than it makes them sound ridiculous and vaguely sinister, they give their God a heavy-handed Russian accent, the kind of low-ball accents used on "Saturday Night Live" comedy sketches. After six days of hard work, the Gods want to rest. They create a five-star resort with oceanside golf, casinos, and tropical cocktails for themselves, conjuring up a current hotelier who has amassed tremendous power of his own. This leaves the fornicatorsas the Gods have decided to call the humans they createdin charge. Trouble ensues.
Both halves of What If tell stories heavy with meaning and reflective of the world we live in today, and both are presented with a minimum of props, virtually no scenery, and brilliantly simple costume choices (the work of costume designer Sonya Berlovitz). The first half has two narratives that, against all odds, are intertwined, a positive view on the connectedness of our human family. The second half shows two different ways of looking at where humanity began and how we got to be in our current pitiful state of affairs, using comedy to make more palatable the troubling truth being dispensed.
The three actors appearing in What IfAgnew, Epps and Keepersare all gifted performers, putting their talents to sterling use. Director Dominique Serrand holds a dual focus: to keep the audience engaged in the stories told, while calling attention to the means of their deliverythe messenger from aloft versus the mischievous clowns. These suggest we may be moved by appeals to our higher instincts, or provoked by jabs and pokes and liberty-taking that appeal to our baser instincts. Marcus Dilliard's lighting aids in establishing narrow or broad views of lives lived.
I found the first half to be more effective, perhaps responding to the more disciplined approach taken, but both halves made striking points, each putting to brilliant use its chosen form of theater-making.
At one juncture, Agnew and Keepers discuss the difference between a play and theater, fearing that while they are doing "theater," the audience may prefer "a play." To my mind, both are incredibly necessary means by which we make sense of ourselves, past, present and future, both as individuals and as communities of all types, including the community composed of all humanity. What If holds up to the light the inherent value of theater, of plays, and of audiences. It does this through stories that touch at the core of humanity, while being moving, provoking, and entertaining. It is not only a play, but theater itself, on display for our amazement.
The Moving Company's What If, runs through December 29, 2019, at The Lab Theater, 700 1st Street North, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $32.00, $38.00; $20.00 for students. For tickets and information, visit themovingco.org.
Conceived by: Steven Epp, Nathan Keepers and Dominique Serrand; Director: Dominique Serrand; Playwrights: Part One Stephen Epp, Part Two Sarah Agnew, Nathan Keepers and Dominique Serrand; Costume Design: Sonya Berlovitz; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Assistant Director: Cara Phipps; Stage Manager: Chloe Brevik-Rich.
Cast: Sarah Agnew, Steven Epp, Nathan Keepers.