***image1***Where did we originate? How have we built ourselves a collective narrative, and why is it so hard to keep our ancient stories safe in a modern world? Swimming in the Gases of Jupiter: A Modern Fairy Tale and Motherland: a Recreation Myth, two halves of Theater Grottesco's Winter One Acts, explore these questions.
Jupiter opens as a young teacher, Mae Coy (co-author Anna Bogaard), takes her first apartment in Brooklyn. Her dismay at finding a wheelchair-bound artist/crone named Venice squatting in her spiffy new warehouse digs metamorphoses into an unlikely friendship. This basic plotline takes a fantastical twist as Mae discovers she is living with an ancient mythological being whose tortured past is revealed by way of dream and hallucination. Elizabeth Wiseman's performance as Venice and Bogaard's Mae are earnest and engaging, if occasionally overwrought. The mythological, universal themes at work in the play allow for this, and both actors inhabit their characters naturally.
Jupiter's visits to history via dream are employed beautifully and bestow a mysterious depth to strange, lovely Venice; the scale model of Jupiter paraded across the stage, heralding Venice's lapses into these dreams,
is too blunt for mystery. Perhaps it's an imagistic reinforcement of the juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern, the actual and the possible. But Jupiter itself never figures convincingly into the personal mythology of each woman or the overarching plot. The planet hangs in the play's foreground, tantalizing but ultimately ambiguous.
Motherland, Grottesco's second act, opens to a spare, volcanic wasteland of a set. It seems our race is given a second chance to establish Eden in a post-apocalyptic world riddled with refuse from its past. The idea of what happens to a group of humans stripped of history, science, religion-all the methods by which we tell each other stories about our world-is fleshed out in clever dialogue and genuine playfulness. The new humans are childlike and brim with joy.
Especially wonderful about these new Adams and Eves is their gender ambiguity: Long and short hair are arbitrary assignments, no one is oversexed and scant attention is paid to exclusive relationships.
These new humans are overseen by a group of invisible beings who sway and whisper like wind. Part Greek chorus, part grove of trees, perhaps muses or gods or ghosts, the group interacts with the main characters in intriguing ways. In one of its more fascinating metaphysical moments, chorus members whisper a story about the trees to My-Other (Danielle Reddick), who relates it to her children, suggesting myth as both invention and gift.
***image2***But there's not much conflict in an indefinite stay in Eden, and as Motherland's characters fall from grace so too does the play. Adventurous Shale (Todd Anderson) and animal-loving Terrin (co-creator Barbara Z) strike out into the wilds of their world and bring back something akin to a colonial murder-and-pillage mindset. Shale also brings back dust hand-culled from grinding rocks together for hours, a mystery powder he calls "happiness" that transforms anyone who sniffs it into an uncomfortably familiar facsimile of an '80s hair rocker. The play begins a descent into a preachy moralism.
Both Winter One Acts, however, are brave adventures into the human psyche (individual in the first play, collective in the second) without camping too long in any specific message. Grottesco's new effort is intelligent and has heart, and most often shuns handy ploys for fresh and authentic results.