“I grew up in South Dakota,” says Steven Epp as “What If” begins. “My name is Steve.”
That speech seems to be the intro to the Moving Company’s new show — silence your devices, etc. — but it turns out to be part of it. The house lights at the Lab Theater stay on, as if the play has not started, while Epp speaks about the actors’ art of transforming into characters different from themselves and the audience’s art of imagining itself into new worlds. It’s only when Epp slides into the costume of a Syrian man who was there when Notre Dame Cathedral burned that the lights dim. Epp becomes a character. We become an audience. And, together, we dream up something wonderful.
The first half of “What If” is indeed wonderful. In that intro, Epp warns us that “What If” is really two plays that are wrestling with each other. His is a poetic meditation in which he subtly transforms from the Syrian man to a teenage girl from Nebraska to environmental activist Greta Thunberg to a flock of starlings, the latter suggested by a delicate flutter of his hands.
United by subtle details such as the sesame seeds they each cling to, Epp’s characters all experience catastrophe: the Notre Dame fire but also the bombing of Aleppo, which the Syrian man recalls as Notre Dame crackles, freakish rains that send the girl for cover as the Platte River floods and the puzzled birds fly overheard. If you’re like me, you may find yourself thinking, “Yup, these man-made disasters do blur together with climate change” before you realize that, in fact, they’re all made by man.
How we respond to enormous change is one of the themes of Epp’s piece. It becomes angry and passionate, but the first half of “What If” also is very funny. (“It’s not a skirt. It’s a warrior kilt, duh,” the girl responds when someone has the nerve to comment on her attire.) It’s provocative and moving, as well.(Reader, I gasped when William Shakespeare is asked if he really wrote his plays.) The highlight is when various characters contemplate murmuration, the phenomenon in which starlings change direction as if by silent, instantaneous agreement. Epp could be talking about birds or, you know, the power of theater to engage an audience when the flock comments, “There’s this moment. And then we all just know.”
It’s a tough act to follow, and I was not as taken with the second half, a broadly comic piece performed by gifted clowns Sarah Agnew and Nathan Keepers. Even more than Epp, the pair specifically address theater as a lens that helps us see the world.
Several elements from the first piece recur, including Shakespeare and climate change, and there are wickedly funny jokes, including one about the Dickens play appearing 1.3 miles down the river from the Lab. But the flatulence, nipple-twisting and Uranus gags fell a little flat after the beatific Epp piece, which is why I wondered if I’d like the second part more if it came first.
On the other hand, the Moving Company folks, who created “Speechless,” my favorite play of 2017, know what they’re doing. As Agnew and Keepers develop the idea that we all have to work together to address the frightening changes confronting our world, the second part of “What If” arrives at a compelling place. There’s something to be said for the notion that all of us who do nothing in the face of disaster are as buffoonish as Agnew’s and Keepers’ characters.
And, as you walk out of the theater, it may occur to you that the title “What If,” which seems to refer to many things over the course of this provocative evening, could be asking, “What if we all finally woke up?”
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