Who's There

Knock Knock

The Burning House Group

"TO BE OR not to be" isn't really the question. Not most of the time, anyway. The less conspicuous but arguably tougher question that dominates Hamlet's (and everybody's) life is not whether to live but whether to live fully. Fully engaged, responsive to challenges, awake, human; everyone has a different sense of what it means. I've been pondering this question lately: Maybe it's my age, or maybe it's the brightening realization in the collective subconscious that the 20th century is ending. It's time for big ideas, big ideals, big dreams and big living--whatever the definition. One acquaintance recently told me she's lost 20 friends to New York and Los Angeles. A prominent local musician described a gut-level pull toward Hollywood; life is too easy, too "syrupy" here, too soon, he said. One friend is moving to Cuba to cover Fidel's last days--a guy who used to quote Warren Zevon only half-jokingly: "I'll sleep when I'm dead." And while most of the bigger theater companies settle into economic-emergency mode with seasons of crowd-pleasing safety (or worse yet, reruns), the younger troupes forge ahead in the face of the financially impossible with a stubborn sense of adventure.

It's an appropriate backdrop for cartoonist/writer Jules Feiffer's 1975 farce, Knock Knock, revived with a manic, meticulous eye by the Burning House Group, and directed by Ally Baker. This is brainy slapstick, equal parts Groucho Marx, Peter Pan, Waiting for Godot, Don Quixote, and, prophetically, the Heaven's Gate cult. The play deals with Abe and Cohn, two aging bachelors who have settled into domestic life by taking cover from the outside world in a carefully balanced system of mutually assured denial. No outsiders are allowed into the apartment, and neither man ever seems to leave.

Still, however many barriers to the external world they erect, Abe and Cohn are wedged apart by existential disagreements about the nature of reality: For Cohn (Matt Guidry), it is fixed; for Abe (Randal Berger), mutable. Cohn thinks Abe is a fool. "You only believe what's in front of you," Abe taunts back. "That's not mindless?" It makes for a pretty heady opening--after all, most roommates are more likely to stew quietly about who didn't do the dishes than argue daily on the modes of existence--and it takes a while to get attuned to the play's high-pitched frequency. The opening-night audience was cold for the first part of the show: I almost wished for a wacky warm-up act--kitty jugglers or some such thing.

When Abe asks Cohn to make him some dinner, Cohn obliges with an empty plate, pointing out the various dishes Abe can choose from; for Abe, Cohn repeats, anything is possible. Eventually the argument reaches such intensity that Cohn wishes out loud that Abe were gone. And, just as suddenly, Abe disappears, replaced by a genie (Eric Knutson). We're not sure whose fantasy (or reality) this is: Abe's, Cohn's, the genie's, or the playwright's. The next houseguest is none other than Joan of Arc, sporting armor and sword, come to collect Cohn and a preternaturally revived Abe. Joan (gamely played by Heidi Hunter Batz) is on a quest to see the emperor and warn him that the sky is missing. And so three Cassandras meet on stage at once: Joan, Dorothy, and Chicken Little.

Now this is a millennial play if ever there was one. In the second and third acts, things get nuttier, denser, faster. A mock trial/kangaroo court ensues where our anti-heroes exchange word associations with the judge (Knutson, again, with fine timing). He overrules his own objection, spins on his seat, and knocks himself out against the kitchen sink; it's Bugs Bunny meets Harry Anderson. Next, Joan is wished into a housewife, and she drops every dish in the house, working herself into a Freudian hysteria in the process. In a phrase: Things fall apart.

On a more philosophical note, though, Abe and Cohn seem to have reversed positions. While Abe pouts, Cohn finds Joan a thrilling reason to believe in the impossible. Knock Knock's existential theme, then, gradually emerges as a series of questions: Should one accept the uncontrollable nature of life or hide from revelation and accident? Is mere proof reason enough to believe in something? Should one view life as a quest (or, at that, as a guest)?

And the Burning House Group--with their profusion of giddy physical comedy, and intellectual ambition--seem to have devoted themselves as much to the artistic journey as the destination; in the act, they've matched Feiffer's own wonderful venture.

Knock Knock runs through September 6 at Pillsbury House Theatre; call 623-9396.

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