Give me back my broken night
My mirrored room, my secret life
It's lonely here, there’s no one left to torture…
Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
Has crossed the threshold
And it has overturned
The order of the soul…
— From the song “The Future” by Leonard Cohen, recited by Undermain Theatre Producing Artistic Director Bruce DuBose, before curtain on opening night of Gordon Dahlquist’s Red Chariot
Dallas — Red Chariot, by science fiction playwright and novelist Gordon Dahlquist, spares nothing and no one in its scathing and smart observation of our technological, social and political times. Although it is considered a futuristic play, there is no indication of when that might be. It is set in a time when a somewhat magical set of Tarot-like cards have been electronically generated via the internet and can affect people worldwide. In this dystopian scenario, and the cards have gone haywire, with dire human consequences.
Undermain Theatre is producing its world premiere, directed by Blake Hackler, who was asked to direct when it became clear that Katherine Owens’ medical condition would not allow her to take it on. She died two months before opening. Owens directed Undermain’s first Dahlquist premiere, 2014’s Tomorrow Come Today. (Be sure and check out an exhibit of her terrific artwork, much of it on notepads with her ideas for Undermain shows.)
Red Chariot is heady, intelligent, extremely wordy, and, in spite of its heavy narrative, moves along. The slower first act sets up the characters, some of whom play a double role in the second act. I did see a few heads nod off towards the end of the first act (it was a bit warm with a full house in the intimate space). The second act incorporates more physical action.
This play has a strong narrative, and that is its most challenging point as a performative piece. It is strong because of the sheer depth of the playwright’s philosophical observations; but it is easy to lose track of the narrative thread due to the absurdist logic. B does not necessarily follow A in the line of argument. However, even if you pick up a sentence or idea here and there, there is enough intelligent observation of our times to make one and think, “Yeah, that’s right.”
I read the script ahead of my interview with Dahlquist, and attended the reading in April. With knowledge of the play under my belt, I had no issues with the wordiness. But for an audience member seeing Red Chariot for the first time, it may feel like a multi-layered chocolate cake wherein one layer may be laced with cream, another with strawberries, and another with cinnamon. Each bite provides a rich morsel, one that can also be savored bit-by-bit. However, it is dense and rich. Perhaps multiple viewings will help — and if you’re into sci-fi and futurism themes, it is worth seeing more than once.
It is also characterized by two strong women in the lead, and these characters are not in any way interested in the usual themes assigned to the genre: not love, marriage, children, nor any shade of sentimentality. Neither woman is anyone’s “other half.” Sarah (in a nuanced performance by Molly Searcy) opens with a long monologue, breaking the fourth wall. She is there for a job interview, disillusioned by the others who came before her. After all, she is an English major and, heaven knows, what can you do with that? (This line from the play provoked chuckles from the audience on opening night.) She wears a red dress that harkens to mid-century Hollywood — a halter dress, red chiffon head scarf covering the hair, red suede pumps. Sarah discovers that she is a Reader of the cards. She can intuit them, and thus is given a job whose description is never disclosed.
The second and equally unusual female character is Black, who will ruthlessly do anything to climb the corporate latter. She delivers the second lengthy monologue, right after Sarah’s. Two back-to-back monologues to open the play is a risky move, but it pays off.
Black is played by Kristi Funk Dana, who also takes on the role of scientist Marpessa in the second act. Black is, of course, dressed in a smart, upscale, little black dress, with power heels and a tight bun at the nape of her neck. She competes for the position along with two other men, White (Jovane Caamaño, who later plays scientist John) and Pattern (Dean Wray, who also plays scientist Henrik/Man). Their ankles chained to sleek, high-backed chairs, they are questioned by Sarah in what turns out to be no ordinary job interview. It feels like a life-or-death interrogation. We don’t know what the job is, and neither do they. However, Funk Dana clearly lets us see and feel the hubris of a full-on corporate power player, one without scruples or morals.
Caamaño as White (dressed in a crisp white suit) and Wray as Pattern (dressed in a stripped pattern shirt and pants) counter Black at every corner. Company member Anthony L. Ramirez as Pierson plays the corporate CEO and scientist who has developed a product (the cards) that has gone viral. He is more interested in the bottom line than in ethics. Stephanie Cleghorn Jasso is Ellen, a scientist’s wife who senses something is amiss.
This is an ensemble piece in which all of the actors possess the skills and step up to the energy required to keep the ball rolling. Director Blake Hackler has helped the actors breathe life into these characters, and he evokes a viable emotional landscape.
Hats off to the creative team: Russell Parkman has created a clean and stark color palate with his scenic design, along with mobile set pieces that focus the attention precisely where it needs to be; the red triangular cube that opens the play is stunning. Amanda Chapshaw captures the essence of each character through crisp and color-appropriate costumes, with a high-end quality to each garment, even the medical gowns in the second act. Jeff Colangelo choreographs some pretty intense fight scenes, the strongest of which focuses on the torture of Pierson. Paul Semrad’s sound works with the minimalist visual design; I particularly loved the fractal sounds that accompany Henrik’s out-of-body experience in the second act. Lighting designer Steve Woods brilliantly uses stark fluorescent lighting in a circular overhead pattern, echoing the circular pattern painted on the stage floor. In her first show at Undermain, properties designer Amy Poe does a stellar job of keeping the color palette clean and minimalist. It’s a nice touch that the cards are not visually or literally exploited; this would have been a cheap and lazy trick that this team was wise enough to avoid.
It is worth noting that there are no scenic design directions in the script. The playwright worked with them throughout this process, and the team created something that fits the cold, stark world of the play.
So, what is this play about? There is no dramatic arc, no interpersonal conflict to resolve, no pathos. Dahlquist challenges us to think about our current world, one in which democracy is debased, climate change is a buzzword ignored by political and capitalist interests, and where we use technologies that define our everyday lives but do not fully understand its repercussions. In this sense the drama, the conflict and the pathos happen within us, with the realization that the world we have created we are now destroying at a record pace.
It is a thinking person’s delight.
» Teresa Marrero is professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is a member of the American Theater Critics Association and is on the Advisory board of the Latinx Theater Commons. She is co-editor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Trevor Boffone (U. of Houston) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (2019, Northwestern University Press). She is often seen dancing Argentine tango and is currently researching visions of the future in dramatic works.