Sarah Edkins’s spare, stark set—a panorama of lavender-blue ice overwhelming a tiny human figure—perfectly evokes the spirit of Glenn Gould’s The Idea of North. Created as a radio documentary by the pianist in the mid 1960s, it has been reconfigured by solo performer Michael John Carley as a theater piece about the hardy—or foolhardy—folks who have made Canada’s Arctic frontier their home.
Seated at a table, armed only with a pitcher of water and a glass, Carley smoothly morphs from character to character: a geographer, a sociologist, a nurse, a surveyor, a government official. With a shift of voice, accent, and a few physical gestures, he rapidly alternates from one to the other, the voices interrupting, deriding, or commiserating with each other as they muse on the lure of the North, its privations, its myths.
The first half is gripping. To the chug of train wheels and howl of winds as they trek endlessly northward, the adventurers reveal their fears, motives, and surprises—how, for example, a need to escape society leads them into the most intimate possible contact with their partners in desolation. Later, though, Carley’s mélange of voices grows more talky and intellectual: opinions are traded about racial divides, the future for the region. The hint of human drama suggested at first fades.
Carley’s performance is assured—his people are witty, appealing, articulate. Still, it’s hard to tell who he is at times. And although Steven Rattazzi’s direction has an austere poetic beauty, the piece is ultimately too static.
A performance like this one, based on journalistic interviews, invites comparison with Anna Deavere Smith’s work on the Crown Heights and L.A. riots. Her characters were vivid, rich in detail and mannerisms. Drawing on less personal, more abstract material, Carley presents, in fact, an idea of the North. That may be his intention, but, except in brief flashes, it doesn’t come alive as theater.
– The Secret Machine, on the other hand, has more action than a kung fu flick, but lacks even the merest semblance of reality. Characters say things like: “Existence is a hammer; desires are nails that bend: what is the secret machine?”
What does this mean? Beats me. This anguished metaphor is just one of the many floating symbols detached from meaning in this miasma of a play. This futurist exercise has been written by Gordon Dahlquist and staged by the Twilight Theatre Company, whose written manifesto specifies that they serve the playwright first, then the company, and “last but not least” the audience. It shows.
The story begins with two women scientists trying to locate the source of desire. Locked in a basement lab (the Frankenstein-type set by director Sturgis Warner, with Allen Hahn’s lighting, is one of the few creditable elements of this production), Veronika (Molly Powell) is strapped to a chair being jerked by electroshock while Francoise (Jane Young) inputs her ramblings on the computer. In spasm and spitting robotspeak, Veronika comes across as part little girl, part feminist scholar high on drugs. Is the source of desire in the brain? Veronika’s brain is all that’s left of her since all her other cells have been replaced. “I-am-a-girl-who-is-this-girl?” she stutters through her trance.
Soon they are joined by another scientific team, Delphine (Annie McAdams) and Tatiana (Emme Shaw), the “mechanicals,” who have created an electronic face mask to locate the physical sources of desire. Prodded by Doctor Irene (Judy Rhodes), a menacing bureaucrat, they are panicked about producing a “report.” Everyone is literally trapped in this Big Brother–ish bureaucracy—they can never leave. Talking trivia, the two teams begin a bloody turf war, beating and torturing each other. Soon the play becomes an escape thriller as they seek to break out.
What is this society composed completely of women? Who wants this research and why? Why do they live only on cake and cigarettes? To call these characters two-dimensional is to overpraise them. So motiveless is the action, so banal the dialogue, that the only reaction to watching them mutilate each other is stupefying boredom. The cast struggles to act and almost does for seconds at a time, but their real nightmare is being prisoners in a script with no way out.