Dallas — Playwright Melissa James Gibson chose a clever title for the play that Echo Theatre is presenting at the Bath House Cultural Center: [sic]. It’s a word publishers use to say that something that looks wrong was meant exactly as they’ve printed it. It’s a shortened form of the Latin phrase for “Thus, it was written.”
It’s a brilliant dodge.
If you like the play, there’s no error to explain. If you don’t, it’s the way it was written. In one word, you can claim credit and shirk responsibility. It’s just the sort of ploy her characters would plot in this plot-less play of neighbors going nowhere. But it works for Echo Theatre, too.
In her author’s note, playwright Gibson suggests a fragmented, edgewise presentation for the play. Director Terri Ferguson sees a perfect fit for the Bath House Cultural Center’s space framed by ever-present columns. Set designer Robert Winn delivers a camera-ready hallway of wall-less apartments angled behind those columns and in this way they become [sic], too. A sort of “Thus, it was built.”
For characters that always seem to be drawn to the spaces in between, it works for them, too, in the way that doorframes work in an earthquake. The better option would be…to not be in an earthquake. If you are going to move to a safer spot, move farther. And that’s just the sort of initiative these characters are unable to muster.
Theo (Ian Ferguson) is composing a theme for a theme park ride. Babette (Kelsey Leigh Ervi) writes aloud a book about the historical influence of outbursts. Frank (Dan Schmoker) practices tongue twisters in hopes to become an auctioneer.
There’s not much more to it.
The cast does a superb job of investing in their character’s tail chasing, though. Ervi leans into the sitcom rhythms and plays well the vertex to the friendship triangle between the excellent oddball created by Schmoker and the plodding music maker inhabited by Ferguson. His frustration with his nemesis, the keyboard, could be it’s own play and it is, at times.
Though, ostensibly they are living actual lives we are treated only to their meager time passing exploits. Frank’s auctioneering endeavor consists of solid steps toward a goal, but they are matched with a laugh-grabbing progression of costume additions courtesy of fesigner Ryan Matthieu Smith until he is just a clown.
The temptation is to search for a context or world for these characters to inhabit but the point is that they belong to a dorm-like existence free of the real life stakes that lurk off campus. Playwright Gibson trips and tricks up the verbal word play, signaling ironically that there’s less here than meets the ear. To seal their self-involved portraits, she has them treat the death of their neighbor with a disregard that the cast of Seinfeld would find callous.
Truly, this is not real life.
It’s a dreamlike purgatory in which the facts don’t matter as much as the frustrations of the characters. Without a narrative arc to shape the endeavor, it’s challenging to have the audience not feel as they’re in just as much limbo as the characters. After a while the wit wears thin, and all that’s left is pity for these lost souls. The virtue gained from the experience, however, is specifically the one they lack: drive.
It’s not unlike visiting a fifth-year senior when you’ve already graduated. It looks really appealing at first in comparison to the real world consequences encountered in the rat race, but that feeling is replaced with the pity/pride dynamic. Pity for them and pride for you. It’s then you begin to tell the difference between their Purgatorio and your Paradiso.
Before this show, you’d never know that minimum wage and a used Toyota was paradise.