Dallas — Ochre House Theatre has the enviable reputation as a gem of Dallas theatre: quality original material, densely packed and cut for optimal brilliance. Smile, Smile Again, written and directed by Justin Locklear, continues in that vein. This time the “Pioneers of the Suavant Guarde” are up to their waists in World War I.
In one case, literally.
Part of the adventure in this tiny Exposition Park storefront is a set design that always extends beyond the stage to the walls and ceiling threatening to engulf the audience. Izk Davies and Locklear create a series of sloping outdoor carpet-covered levels that are bordered by distressed pallet wood reinforcements and chain link. The triangular shapes are something like a low-poly take on the trenches of the Battle of the Somme. When a shovel sticks up behind the highest mound, it’s almost certain that a sniper’s bullet will ring out. But that doesn’t happen. Instead, the shovel walks back and forth, puppet like, as if it’s on sentry duty.
The show captures the gallows humor tension of battle: horror on one side and hilarity on the other.
Peering over the mound is a Madman played by Mitchell Parrack, wearing a tattered uniform adorned with watches as medals and a scrap of a dress as a sash. In a spellbinding performance, Parrack reasons with clownish intensity through Locklear’s challenging verbal no man’s land. If Dr. Seuss and Samuel Beckett had a secret language, it would sound something like this. It’s not quite as bleak as Beckett and not quite as sing-songy as Seuss, but both flavors are decidedly baked in. Audience members individually untangle bits of meaning and signal their understanding with a private titters. Just when the challenge of deciphering the syntactical soup is getting too great, playwright Locklear introduces the Soldier (Darren McElroy).
McElroy has been there the whole time buried to his waist. (Though in the tricky parlance of the show, it could also be “to his waste”). It’s only now that the audience discovers that the wordplay of this world extends beyond the brain of the Madman. The soldier must speak it as well. And here begins the next level of the evening: the battle for communication. The Soldier is trying to convince the Madman to dig him out of the earth. The Madman, instead, is intent on watering his Spartoi (from the Greek myth of man growing from the earth). The cyclical wordplay is bewildering as they circle back to the same sentences that they started from with no broader understanding than they had before.
There are interludes of original music by Gregg Prickett and Aurora DeWilde. Like earth-bound angels, director Locklear has them enter and leave with somber care, twisting our notion of time. The helplessness of the Soldier deepens as we wonder how long he’s been stranded. Intensifying that further are the near misses of people entering who could notice and rescue him were it not for the Madman obscuring him. Kevin Grammer (under lights he designed himself) passes as a Stranger with strong echoes of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Marti Etheridge is a Charity Worker who seeks to render aid to the Madman even though she is more preoccupied with performing for her newsreel camera. They end up bickering over the very nature of help while the Soldier is frustratingly close.
Hitchcock would be proud.
Playwright Locklear has set up a grand sandbox of metaphorical playthings by cracking open language. He’s seeking to lay bare the sweetmeat of meaning in the empty spaces where communication breaks down. The subjects of suffering, bravery and faith are expected in a play set amongst war, but he aims even higher. Humanity itself is under scrutiny. With such large aspirations, some shots are bound to miss their mark, but late in the evening comes a hit of nuclear proportions.
Two soldiers run onstage anachronistically dressed in modern war garb by Amie Carson. Like Lewis Carroll’s Tweedle siblings, Dee and Dum, Wice and Warz intrude with their own urgent nonsensical energy. Marcus Stimac and Gloria Benavides play the two AWOL soldiers with breathtaking abandon, hilariously shifting from proud posturing to terrified aggression and everything in between. The crux of this scene (which deserves to be its own short film, to be honest) is that they aren’t perfectly sure if they are enemies or allies. Unable to determine who is “the same,” running seems to be the best solution. That certainly gets in the way of deciding whether or not they should help the Soldier. Locklear and company gets the balance just right here between the ridiculous and profound. The audience almost can’t laugh for gasping. Somehow they manage both. This is theatre gold.
Even after that, Locklear isn’t out of ammunition. His resolution will add yet another layer to the already deep evening.
So, that’s how Ochre House maintains its reputation: by making theatre everyone can dig.
The shovel bit at the beginning makes sense now, too.