Dallas — The lights come up on futuristic-looking set of low furniture pieces, a red-and-white color scheme, and glowing blocks spaced out around the floor. After an uneasy pause, a white jump-suited and masked figure asks a newly awakened and nearly naked man, “how are you feeling?” The man’s confusion is palpable as he begins to piece together some sort of narrative to explain his presence there. Many of us in the audience will remain just as perplexed (in the best sort of way) during the next two and a half hours of time and body shifting, all the while investigating some heavy duty philosophical questions. It’s all part of the journey in Undermain Theatre’s deep and nuanced world premiere production of Gordon Dahlquist’s science fiction drama Tomorrow Come Today.
The man in question is called Poul (Montgomery Sutton); at least he is in the first time iteration that is “several hundred years in the future.” He is momentarily discombobulated because he is part of the super wealthy elite who can “transfer,” or switch themselves, over and over into younger bodies to transcend normal human lifespans. He is joined post-transfer by Carol (Shannon Kearns), Natalia (Jenny Ledel), Kyoko (Vanessa DeSilvio), Sabir (Ruben Carrazana), and Dmitri (Gregory Lush). It is difficult sometimes to pin the actors to their parts as there is quite a bit of Orphan Black-style inhabiting of roles by the same seven actors in the three different time periods (Ricco Fajardo shows up in various parts as well).
These one-percenters may be able to cheat death but a rapidly declining world climate and technology that has gone “horizontal” is starting to spark quite a bit of angst and existential ennui. The story unfolds a little more in a second act that takes place seventy-five years later and in the final act that is coexistent with our own 2014.
Exposition of the plot is scant in this review because, like most plays in general, but more so with this play in particular, one must experience the show him or herself to begin to understand. It’s the ultimate “you-had-to-be-there” dramatic exercise.
Dahlquist, who is also a gifted futurist and steampunk novelist, has imbued his play about body switching with many themes, sci-fi and otherwise: the fluidity of gender and identity, ethics and altruism, conservation, the nature of time and space, “the history of the idea of the future,” and even the Tao of tennis. Dahlquist wrote Tomorrow Comes Today during a silent retreat in Texas, a setting utterly suitable for creating an immersive world that feels both alien and familiar. Director Katherine Owens and her creative team have replicated that singular experience of being in an unsettled elsewhere perfectly.
The aforementioned set (John Arnone) along with Suzanne Lavender’s lights, Giva Taylor’s costumes comprised of futuristic robes, Japanese chic, and robot-wear, and Bruce DuBose’s sound design (easy to miss yet crucial) of incidental music, beeps, machine sounds, hums, and drones all help to create an immersive atmosphere unlike no other in most theaters. It’s akin to being completely enveloped in a Stanley Kubrick film.
The best thing I can say about Owens’ direction, among many other great things, is that her style is not fussy. Everything about the play and the performances seem right on and as they should be, simple and complete, yet that impression comes from an incredibly skillful director who is only making it look easy.
The ensemble acting is balanced and generous. The On the Eve alumni (Sutton, Ledel and Lush) are particularly strong with Lush providing one of the most vulnerable and versatile performances I have seen from him. Carrazana, DeSilvio and Fajardo—relative newcomers to Undermain—prove themselves as more than worthy, and Kearns, an Undermain company member, continues to deliver classical acting clinics.
Jeffrey Colangelo deserves a special mention for the challenging choreography and movement design involved in such a unique play of different actors playing many of the same characters and robots.
When the lights go down, that exquisite confusion that we began with settles then resonates far beyond today’s immediate viewing of this meditative and contemplative piece of theater into many tomorrows.
» Read our interview with playwright Gordon Dahlquist