by Carol Rocamora
“Once upon a time there was a playwright named Annie Baker who wrote a story about storytelling. She made it into a play. It was good. The end.”
Not quite. You’ll be talking about The Antipodes, Baker’s fascinating new play about stories and their value, for days after you see it at the Signature Theatre. Baker has challenged us before with her startling new dramatic forms (Circle Mirror Transformation and The Flick). Now, with her baffling, riveting, and ultimately rewarding The Antipodes, she‘s making even greater demands on her audiences.
When you enter the tiny Linney Theatre, you see an empty stage with an oblong conference table. An actor is seated there, working on his laptop. As the lights dim, the rest of the cast enters, one by one, taking their seats around the table. They begin telling stories. Who are they? Where are they? What are they doing?
We never get clear answers to these questions during this two-hour intermission-less head-trip that Baker takes us on. What we surmise is that Sandy, the L.A.-looking dude in black chinos, black shirt, and baseball cap – is a studio executive, and that these individuals (six men, one woman, all 30ish, seated for almost the entire performance) are writers who’ve been hired to create storylines for film or TV, somewhere in LA. “No dwarves or elves or trolls” are the only restrictions Sandy places on the imaginations he’s determined to provoke.
“Tell us about your first time!” says Sandy (a sinister Will Patton), to get the ball rolling. And so we hear stories from each of them (from peculiar to pornographic to preposterous). Sandy prompts them again, and as they go around the table and the stories continue (getting more and more outlandish), the minutes tick by, and soon we’re realizing that they’re not minutes but hours, days and weeks. “This is a great job, you guys, other people would kill for this job,” they reassure each other, dodging the question, spinning their yarns, going nowhere.
Locked into this Sartre-esque “no exit,” the only sense of time and reality outside that claustrophobic conference room is the appearance of Sarah (a spacey Nicole Rodenberg), who orders take out food from the nearest eaterie. Sarah’s costume changes (roughly a dozen, designed by Kaye Voyce), indicating the passage of time, engender a laugh with each entrance – but it’s the kind of uneasy laughter you hear in Ionesco’s theatre of the absurd, where you realize that something is terribly amiss.
The storytelling grows increasingly bizarre. “My sister has two uteruses. I have a gill. My Mom is a Cyclops”, offers Eleanor (Emily Cass McDonnell), who begins with a row of knitting that by the end of a play is a finished sweater. Meanwhile Brian (Brian Miskell), the note taker, surfs the internet, interjecting questions like “Guess how old the world’s oldest animal is?” “I really respect the work we’re doing here,” says Danny (Danny Mastrogiorgio) who is suddenly called out of the room by Sandy and disappears. To accentuate their entrapment, Baker introduces a hilarious “conference call” with Max, a disembodied off-stage voice, whom Sandy reassures that the team is definitely “coming up with the right story.”
Toward the end of the tense, tantalizing two-hours, deftly directed by Lila Neugebauer, Sandy disappears, too. The storytellers are alone, willing prisoners in the conference room. Desperate, Adam (Phillip James Brannon) begins an endless, incoherent story about the beginning of the world (a mishmash of Greek and Biblical myths) that everyone agrees could be “the one” – but by now Brian has stopped taking notes.
I won’t reveal the play’s punch line – it’s well worth waiting for. Suffice it to say that Baker’s brilliant play succeeds on two levels. On one, it’s a scathing satire on the storytelling industry (i. e. Hollywood), like Charlie Kaufman’s 2002 film Adaptation. “We need stories as a culture. It’s what we live for,” says Sandy. And we, the audience, are the compulsive, clueless consumers.
On a deeper level, it’s an existential inquiry into the essence of stories. As the title suggests, they’re universal and timeless, reaching through the world and throughout the ages. Looking for “the right story” isn’t the point. They’ve always been with us.
The Antipodes by Annie Baker, directed by Lila Neugebauer, at Pershing Square Signature Center through June 11 www.signaturetheatre.org