Destination Unknown

At home she feels like a tourist: (left to right) Heather Stone, Alex Moros, and Alayne Hopkins in 15 Head's 'Vacationland!'
15 HEAD - a theatre lab

Part of getting away from it all entails an expectation of exploration and adventure, a suspension of the rules of everyday life. Like meeting an eight-foot-tall talking fish philosopher, for instance. This and more are offered up in 15 Head's premiere Vacationland!, an ideational exploration of leisure and escape that, despite a number of effective and evocative moments, suffers from uneven energy and an incapacity to project its impressionistic notions to the audience.

The titular town of C. Denby Swanson's script is an abstract place of imagination, albeit one grounded by an old-timey diner where all the locals congregate. There's the waitress (Becky Zalon), put-upon and weary; the inexplicably tuxedoed Edgar (Ryan Hill), furtive and anxiety-riddled; and the Commander (Jonathan Peterson), a shell-shocked veteran of a recent fictitious civil war that has ravaged the American Midwest. They spend a lot of time at the diner--Edgar can point out the very seat at the counter where he was born--and the action begins with the arrival of strangers from the outside.

Joel Sass's set nicely fosters the suspension of reality that the production calls for. The diner's homey realism is set off by a couple of smaller abstract zones, then the real eye-catcher: a ceiling-scraping portal topped by red owlish eyes, scary and dreamlike. It's into this world that Ella arrives. Sandra Shallcross plays the mystery woman with glamour and frailty, and Edgar is appropriately smitten. The Commander, on the other hand, harbors dark rages over the notion that Ella hails from the lands where he left his coherent mind.

A parallel plotline involves a couple and their daughter. They're trying to go on vacation, but dad Bill (Alex Moros) has misplaced their tickets and mom Nancy (Heather Stone) is less than forgiving about the matter. She dotes on daughter Darling (Alayne Hopkins), but by the time they get to Vacationland, things break down and we have a bleak take on family life. Nancy is miserable and disillusioned, Bill is ineffectual and weak, and Darling chafes under her mother's unrealistic and oppressive affection.

All of this unfolds in a disjointed manner that strives to employ free association rather than linear action to tease out meaning. Director Andrea McAvey developed the story with Swanson in 15 Head's theater lab developmental setting, utilizing in part dialogue from a web-based project by playwright Charles Mee (whose Wintertime played at the Guthrie Lab in early 2003) in which he invited writers to take one of his texts and chop, mince, and dice it into new forms.

It's a nice idea, and Vacationland! hits upon good moments amid its rather easygoing flow. Shallcross delivers a monologue about being hunted by dogs called "blue heelers," in which she manages to ratchet up her apparent heartfelt sincerity in direct proportion to the increasing abstraction of what she's saying. Stone, whose role asks her to convey loss and betrayal while providing only the most skeletal fuel, manages a monologue of her own that lends unexpected gravity to the proceedings. There's a jarring seduction scene with a rhythmic backing track (at other times the music is far too soft), with the cast engaging in repetitive, obsessive gestures, and a very funny and surreal moment when the action to that point is recapped in a span of 30 seconds.

For all this, Vacationland! ultimately disappoints by gesturing at ideas without providing sufficient flesh and substance. We have meditations on abstract wars, infidelity in a stale and unhealthy marriage, a woman haunted by her past and unsure what going home even means to her, and the consciousness of the aforementioned eight-foot fish (an amusing and welcome note). But from an audience perspective, there is a sense that a catalogue of meanings exists up there that isn't crossing the edge of the stage. I left without a sense that the play had communicated to me anything more urgent than the substance of a stale and static dream, pleasant enough and diverting to remember, but already beginning to fray at the edges and soon relegated to lost corners of memory.

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