Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
A co-production of Philadelphia's Tiny Dynamite and the UK-based company Pursued by a Bear, Perfect Blue concerns a grim future in which the world's ecosystems have slowly died off, leaving the surviving population with little food and few natural resources. Watson refracts the global crisis through the marriage of Carys (Emma Gibson) and Michael (Harry Smith), scientists who take opposing views of how best to solve the problem of mass extinction. Carys hitches her wagon to biotechnology, believing the ecosystem can be "repaired piece by piece" through the genetically engineered reintroduction of destroyed species. Michael places his faith in community farming, leaving the lab to become a shepherd of the scorched earth. When Carys takes a job in America, Michael does not follow; the shifting dynamics of their relationship are played out through video chat.
In the play's second scene, Carys dons a lab coat and begins to show Michael (whose live image is projected on the back wall of the set) the new species of butterflies she has begun to engineer. On opening night, Smith started speaking on cue, but no sound emerged. When he finally became audible, it was through thick feedback. Gibson and Smith valiantly soldiered on, until a disembodied voice announced a temporary hold to restore the Skype connection. About five minutes later, the actors took the scene from the top, and the rest of the performance went off without a hitch.
However, this early snafu caused me to question the necessity of the conceit. Theater is all about suspension of disbelief; we could easily believe that these two characters were an ocean apart even if they were standing ten feet away from each other. As director David O'Connor writes in a program note, "it is only important that it feels right, or feels true, for the audience to have an experience." The mandate that Michael be physically removed strikes me as limitingit restricts Watson's ability to tell the full story of this couple and their reality. We only experience Michael through his conversations with Carys, who becomes the central character by default. We can never fully grasp why he approaches his wife's work from such an adversarial place, or how he became convinced his orchard holds the answer to society's ills, since it would be impossible for the character to organically lead a scene or deliver a monologue via Skype.
Watson gives us a boilerplate dystopia, but he seems not to know that science fiction thrives in shades of gray. As the seventy-minute play progresses, it becomes clear where the playwright stands: organic good, genetic bad. Watson leans into the predictable bogeyman of corporate greed, using Michael as a mouthpiece to excoriate Carys and her blue-chip employer, who are more concerned with wringing profits out of a dire situation than actually helping the world's vulnerable population. He also takes a surprising anti-science bent, fully equating all genetic intervention with playing god. (Apparently extinction is preferable.) This simplistic worldview turns Carys, who approaches her work with a true believer's zeal, into an easy villain. Watson can and should make these arguments, but not in such black and white termsit's a problem that might have been assuaged had he abandoned the intercontinental gimmick and put his characters in the same room.
Even via Skype, Smith imbues Michael with an emotional authenticity that the writing largely lacks. Gibson, who is also Tiny Dynamite's outgoing Artistic Director, fares less well. Her monotonous line readings betray neither Carys' commitment to her research, nor the potentially dubious morals that underpin her choices. The slight use of amplification, no doubt added due to the production's other technological requirements, only reinforce the flatness of her speech patterns. Gibson moves awkwardly and rarely connects with the audience, even in direct-address monologuesa fact helped little by O'Connor, who has her deliver a pivotal scene entirely facing away from the audience.
On the whole, O'Connor seems mostly concerned with the bells and whistles of his physical production. It's little surprise that the most memorable aspects have the least to do with the actual play. The ambient lighting, eye-catching projections, and subtly evocative musical underscoring (all by Jorge Cousineau) are of a piece with genre conventions, and often compensate for deficits in the writing. But I don't go to the theater to be dazzled by fancy light showsI go to experience real human stories. In that respect, Perfect Blue is a perfect waste of time.
Tiny Dynamite's production of Perfect Blue continues through Sunday, July 23, 2017, at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 40 N. American Street, Philadelphia. Tickets ($15-20) can be purchased at www.tinydynamite.org.