One cannot feel time in words alone, but it is there, ticking, moving, existing. Passing us by as time so often does, as we invest our lives in one thing or another. We as humans spend our lives making an existence, making decisions that make us who we are, but when we depart there is no trace of us left behind except for our absence. Provocative as ever – Single Carrot Theatre opens up their brand new theatre space at 2600 N. Howard street with a curious piece of theatre entitled The Flu Season. Written by Will Eno and Directed by Alix Fenhagen, this bizarre exploration of the social architecture of human relationships and the overall human condition known as ‘living’ is a peculiar study – not unlike watching a disorganized documentary on a very specific sub-species of the human race. Falling into the overhead achievement of the theatre’s ongoing mission statement to start a revolution of the mind, this piece fits the bill for the Carrots even as they take root in fresh soil at their brand new location.
Set Designer Ryan Haase creates a quirky playground for the Carrots in this production that starts off with a brief audience immersion as patrons come into the space down the tilted stage to their seats. It’s a metaphorical slide down into the darkly convoluted look at life, but the most intriguing thing about this current setup is the actors in their little pop-up hatches, preparing themselves. Haase’s design incorporates several hatches, some large others smaller, on the raked surface, creating wondrous little holes where mysteries can become realities. With a calming foam blue color used on the main surface and all the furnishings, Haase creates a sharp contrast to the sterile hospital white featured on the gauze drapery used in the background and props.
Another hallmark of a SCT production is the unique soundscape that often accompanies the story. Sound Designer Dan Cassin brings original music to this performance, creating moments that enhance the ‘documentary’ feeling of the show. While Cassin’s music is reserved largely for brief pauses in scene, it sounds like the background to a familiar nature documentary, just exciting enough to keep you captivated with what might happen next but not too noisy or racy to distort your perception. Cassin’s design, combined with Lighting Designer Joseph R. Walls’ work creates ephemeral moments of memory when the smaller hatches are opened; whisking the observer away into a time forgotten or a place unknown, ending as abruptly as it starts. Walls’ work in general gives the play a jarring quality as the lights shock in and out of existence at the beck and call of characters named Prologue and Epilogue.
Playwright Will Eno presents a convoluted roundabout piece of work that may actually be about nothing at all while simultaneously being about everything. At first there is an inspired fury when you realize you’ve spent two hours investing in these characters for no particular reason at all, but at second glance there is something deeply moving, albeit disturbing, when a playwright can draw you into a stranger’s story only to discard you at the end as if you nor the story mattered. The unusual approach of dueling storylines— the reality of the action in the show itself verses the continual battle of knowing the story, fought between Prologue and Epilogue (who act in a fashion similar to narrators)— brings an element of the surreal into play despite having this play set within the blurred lines of pseudo reality.
Director Alix Fenhagen does an exceptional job of finding meaning in this very puzzling work; creating a sense of need and yearning that she then infuses into the characters to keep the audience invested in their stories. There are several stories that are vying for attention in this production and Fenhagen balances them all equally, ensuring that every story makes a strong impression, in one way or another, on those watching. Fenhagen’s ability to keep the stories moving while weaving them into one another so that they create one provocative piece of theatre is impressive, especially for a script that is as off-the-wall and un-tethered as this one.
Six performers, three stories; all of which overlap to create the main show. Working from the interior outward there is Man (Paul Diem) and Woman (Jessica Garrett). They are the pair that exists in the simple shell of reality, those their reality is a far different version than what the audience might consider reality to be. Diem and Garrett share a burgeoning chemistry that at first is awkward and humorous but grows considerably intimate and deep. Diem creates a stunning moment of lyrical dissonance in his heartfelt ‘falling out of love’ speech where his vocal tone, body language and gestures are nurturing, loving, almost amorous while his words are horrifically disruptive and hurtful. He constructs an internalized character that is exposed a bit like an orange, one segment at a time.
Garrett’s portrayal of this curious character is a bit more explosive. The frantic bursts of her almost spastic personality are punctuated with sharp drawbacks into her reclusive shell; uncertainty permeating her gestures and the way her speech patterns taper away into the silence. This creates an unusual dynamic between them, perfect for growing their seemingly off-kilter relationship.
Nurse (Genevieve de Mahy) and Doctor (Michael Salconi) are the outer layer of this shell if the performance as viewed as a bird’s nest, where Man and Woman are the inner yolk and Epilogue and Prologue are the nest that frames them. Salconi and de Mahy have an equally curious working relationship that blossoms in a sense as a snowdrop flower might, cautiously and tentatively in the brisk winter chill. Salconi and de Mahy’s focus is grounded in a separate layer of reality, begging the question who is the expert and who is the patient? His approach is more forward, while hers is more reserved, but both create vivid moments of description in their recollections, particularly de Mahy when she is in the group session scene.
Naming your character’s Prologue (Dustin C.T. Morris) and Epilogue (Allyson Harkey) may seem obvious and trite at first, but the way they are fused into the production makes them rather extraordinary. Morris and Harkey exist more as a narrative force, almost like stage directions being read aloud as the play progresses, each with a very distinctive trait that not only defines them individually but creates an antagonizing opposite of themselves to each other in this production. For Morris it’s his unyielding optimistic enthusiasm, ever present in his voice and facial expressions.
For Harkey it’s her deadpan; laced heavily into everything she says and does even in the moments of genuine hope and appreciation that spring into her speeches. When the beginning becomes the end, however, Morris makes a dynamic and drastic change; an impressive transformation to behold. It would be unfair to say that Harkey’s character does not grow or change, but rather shifts in intensity; an equally stunning performance given on her part as the end of a story can never truly change.
The Flu Season is indeed evocative, and makes you think and question. It’s a production well worth seeing even if you come away with questions, and especially if you come away with questions.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.