According to one interpretation of quantum mechanics, in the course of any event in which multiple outcomes are possible, every outcome occurs—one in this world, others in an array of parallel worlds. So in one world, I might write that I despise Katie Pearl and Lisa D’Amour’s Terrible Things and Sibyl Kempson and Mike Iveson Jr.’s Crime or Emergency, both at P.S.122. In another, I might champion one show at the other’s expense. In a third, I might never pen a word, as a racetrack win enables me to abandon my career and light out for regions rum-soaked and tropical. But in this world, I will celebrate both shows as appealing and eclectic (and perhaps heave a quick sigh for daiquiris unsipped).
Terrible Things takes the idea of parallel universes as its central premise. In a long monologue scripted by Pearl and D’Amour, the former offers a précis of her life in which she explores alternate choices and circumstances. If she had kept growing, she might have become a ballerina. If she had stayed in college, she might never have embraced Downtown theater. If she had not subjected “a long line of lovers to terrible breakups followed immediately by dating their best friend,” she wouldn’t have so much amusing material to draw upon.
As Pearl summarizes her 39 years, in a process her own father describes as “trying to pawn off your self-absorption as some metaphysical experiment,” three dancers and two jujitsu wrestlers swirl and stumble around her. Sometimes they mirror her gestures, sometimes she mimics theirs—seemingly an attempt to explore the physics premise, well, physically. Pearl engages and her stories entertain; the choreography and the varieties of lighting, sound, and setting components can sometimes seem surplus to requirements. Yet, as in their previous collaborations, Pearl and D’Amour prod the boundaries of theater and performance art, working to transform straightforward narrative into something richer, stranger, and ineluctably feminine. Perhaps Terrible Things does not require a floor grid composed of 600 marshmallows (courtesy Anna Kiraly), but their presence makes the play that much sweeter.
In Crime or Emergency, Kempson conducts a quantum mechanics experiment on her own body. While barely altering her posture or voice, she splits herself into nearly a dozen characters, who form a soap-opera-like story centered on ideas about violence. One of those characters muses, “How often do we discover a new part of ourselves?” In Kempson’s case: constantly. While Kempson flings herself from one personality to the next, Iveson provides underscoring and contents himself with a mere two roles—Figgie, an accompanist, and Mary, a journalist. (At two performances, titled Emergency or Crime, the actors will switch. Kempson will play Figgie and Mary; Iveson will attempt the other parts.)
The script itself appears both over- and underwritten, a piece of hysterical realism that plays out in a doctor’s office, in a parking garage, at a rodeo, on a boat, etc. As both actor and playwright, Kempson has a gift for rendering the fairly normal as intensely weird. She’s never better than when portraying Milcha, the cabaret artiste who dons a sequined vest and speak-sings her way through Bruce Springsteen’s early singles. There’s a “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and a zany, glittery lightness at the center of the show.