Mu Performing Arts' premiere of Juliana Hu Pegues's new play traces an arc that begins with the romantic roulette of speed dating, progresses to the grim halls of Guantanamo-like interrogation, and ends up fighting the power in a dystopian future America. It's a spicy meatball, in other words, and the deeper you get into viewing it, the more you wonder if it's going to hold together or collapse under its own weight.
We meet our three characters in an early, scattershot scene in which they address the audience as proxies for various would-be lovers in speed-dating interludes. There's 9066 (Katie Leo; the characters are identified by anonymous digits for reasons that eventually unfold on numerous levels), a self-regarding drag obsessed with feminist lit (which doesn't make her a drag) and the superiority of her intellect (which does). Rounding out the trio are 187 (Bao Phi), an Asian guy who identifies as black and bases his identity on hip-hop culture, and 1/2 (Laurine Price), an amiable quasi-hippie who is good-naturedly nonplussed about her interlocutors' repeated inquiries into her ethnic identity. All three performers so far are crisp and frequently quite funny. Leo digs into 9066's haughty superiority, while Phi lends fleeting moments of self-deprecation and naive honesty to a character that could have easily been a cutout.
But things aren't so simple. The actors, after all, opened the evening with hoods over their heads, and gradually the scene morphs from romantic interrogation into questioning of the homeland-security stripe. The last part of the first act sees all three seated in a row, variously answering questions, getting shocked, and generally breaking down. It's tricky stuff done well, with 187 concocting a story of mass murder to toy with his captors, 1/2 spinning threads of fantasy and reality, and 9066 going to a far darker place entirely.
Then there's the second act, which deserves credit for boldness, but which is nonetheless a flat-out hash. The action is transported a decade into the future, in which our economy has collapsed, a police state has imposed itself, and deportations and genetic tests for racial identity are the order of the day. 9066 is a professor who's been hounded out of her job for political reasons, and 1/2 and 187 arrive uninvited at her hideout as members of the resistance (with 187 sporting a bullet wound).
All of which is well and good, though Pegues's ambitions here don't match first-time director David Mura's work (pretty soon after the intermission, one gets a distinct sense that this show should have quit while it was ahead). There's an unnecessary explication of our freedom fighters' botched mission, a poetic romantic interlude concerning the ladies' just-terminated relationship, and shifting allegiances that make scant motivational sense. And as a virtuosic user of what an esteemed colleague once termed "the fuck word," I can't help but take note when cluster-bomb effenheimers start dropping about every other line (in lieu of actual mounting intensity).
By the time matters turn to whether torture is justified under extreme circumstances, there's no escaping the feeling that we're in triple overtime. There are worthy goals here, but they aren't met. These able actors give a sense by the end of hanging on for dear life, but they're pretty well hung out to dry.
The Brave New Workshop's 50th anniversary retrospective ends up making the case that the company's current cast and recent work are probably as strong as anything the company has produced in its long history. There's Stephen Hawking's Rapebot 3000, the Minnesota-sacrilege song about Kirby Puckett, and a riff on poor, beleaguered Pluto, nestled alongside more aged material about sex, politics, and the bum-out horrors of the After School Special. If you haven't taken in the Workshop recently (or, really, even if you have), this is a good way to ease back into its freaky, funny vibe. Recent additions Josh Eakright and Ellie Hino have started to firm up their comedic personas, and the current core of Lauren Anderson, Joe Bozic, and Mike Fotis is nothing short of a well-oiled machine (albeit oiled with some weird, alien engine lubricant). If they're offering up an improv set afterward, stay. That particular comedic high-wire act goes down like a chaser after the scripted stuff before.