Monday, September 18, 2017

~ [almo$t equal to] almost makes it

For my first ever visit to Pillsbury House Theatre, I was lucky enough to see ~ [almo$t equal to], a newly translated Swedish play. 

Photo by George Byron Griffiths

Making it's premiere on this side of the Atlantic (with the help of the always-excellent American Swedish Institute), ~ [almo$t equal to] uses the interwoven stories of three people's lives to make a point about capitalism, assumptions and kindness. The play opens with a short lesson on sociological equations that evaluate happiness. Can you quantify happiness by boiling it down into a simple equation? What makes a thing or experience truly worth your investment of time and money? How can you evaluate?

Photo by George Byron Griffiths

From there, the audience explores these questions through the life of Peter, a homeless man; Andrej, a volatile poor young man looking for a job (and failing); Martina, a privileged woman who chooses to live a humbler life than her family raised her with; and sundry characters who surround and encounter each of these people and help provide color to their stories. These can include a job coach, reverend, liqueur store employees, a long term life partner, or even the id of a character herself. 

Photo by George Byron Griffiths

These seemingly simple elements combine to create a surprisingly rich script. Andrej at first appears a sympathetic character but we become horrified as we learn how far he's willing to go to avenge his perceived lack of privilege and opportunity. Martina seems noble but becomes much more complex as we learn how resentful she is of her chosen life of poverty. Perhaps the most complexing moral quandary arises in our views of Peter, through whom we see every shade of perception from a lazy opportunist posing as a homeless person to a victim of violence to a mourning brother to a person of character. It is through our reaction to the way our perception of Peter changes (and the surrounding characters' reactions to his presence in various scenarios) that the audience is forced to really reconcile with their notions of fairness, support, and charity. It's a humbling exercise, and I'd venture a guess that many in the audience were surprised and uncomfortable with their reactions to the many sides we see of Peter's experience. 

Photo by George Byron Griffiths

There are a few frustrating elements to ~ [almo$t equal to]. The first two acts clip along at rapid pace and really pull the audience into this morality play. The third act gets a little lost as it tries to tie up each loose end, with some of the tension dissolving into a subplot that muddies the characters' relationships. I wish the ending was a little tighter, explicitly confronting and continuing the focus on Peter and Martina and the way their disparate realities were in conflict. An odd pause between the second and third acts also provides a jarring gap in the action and really interrupts the momentum of the show, which flows beautifully until that point. There were some excellent elements that stood out, too. The total ignorance of stereotypical gender roles - each actor played a variety of parts without a second thought - was really refreshing. The sleek stage design was simple but streamlined and was perfectly adequate for the performance. The appearance of a 19th century sociologist at the beginning of the show is charming and reminiscent of your favorite historical YouTube artists. And the actors speak as if breathing, with a conversational tone that really warms up the relationships on stage. 

Photo by George Byron Griffiths

Still, those are personal preferences, and the writing and staging has nothing to do with the terrific cast. Each person plays multiple characters in the show, and their skill at quickly transitioning between roles really shows. Sun Mee Chomet remains a perennial favorite in multiple appearances, always lending a comedic edge (and often a hefty dose of poignancy as well) into each of her parts. Randy Reyes is equally charming in multiple supporting roles, and he does a good job of serving as a narrator of sorts throughout the show. Jay Owen Eisenberg is punchy and volatile as Andrej, and brings a real edge to his acting. Tracey Maloney is deceptively convincing as a young teenage boy and sickeningly convincing as the kleptomaniac Martina. Paul de Cordova, however, was my surprise favorite in multiple roles but especially as Peter. de Cordova really had me examining my relationship to the homeless and needy in my own life, and he expertly manipulates the audience's stereotypes with a broad range of portrayals. I was really impressed with his work and I look forward to seeing him again in future productions. 

Photo by George Byron Griffiths

~ [almo$t equal to] is an excellent foray into the dangers of assumptions and the limits of capitalism when it comes to happiness. It's true that money is not the key to happiness; it's also true that there is nothing sexy or glamorous about poverty. What we are all seeking lies somewhere in a delicate balance between these two things, and it's an evaluative process that never really ends. By forcing the audience to truly confront their assumptions about what is good or bad; who is or is not deserving of help or sympathy; and revealing the deeper story behind the basic assumptions we all make daily about those we encounter,  ~ [almo$t equal to] makes room for a deeper, more thoughtful exploration of what it really means to be a human in society today. ~ [almo$t equal to] runs at Pillsbury House Theatre through October 22; more information and tickets can be found by clicking on this link