I had the pleasure of spending this past weekend in Santa Barbara with some very good friends from college. What was the occasion, you ask? Well, one of those friends was putting on a play. And if you know anything about me, you know that I can never turn down great theatre.
This friend, whose name is Casey, and his merry little band of thespians called Ratatat Theatre Group put on quite a show as always. The piece was entitled Roses, and it was the culmination of work done around the writings of Gertrude Stein and Richard Foreman, with a bit of personal documentary thrown in. The subject matter dealt with the issue of noise in everyday life, and the feelings of being trapped in monotonous routines. In the words of its tagline, it aimed to “find a clear signal in the noise of modern life”. I wonder how many recent college grads can identify with that one…I know I can.
The play was at times zany and farcical, while at other times honest and heartfelt. The moments of honesty came during a section which ran throughout the piece, where the cast members commented on the origin of their names. This was most striking the first time it happened, since it takes the audience off guard when a cast member directly addresses the audience out of character. It breaks the fourth wall and creates a familiarity between the actor and the audience. It gave the play as a whole a much more human character. During these moments, the play went from being a “spectator sport” to being sort of an interactive documentary. It also left room for the question which came up later in a humorous discussion…is a play still a play if it recognizes itself as such?
The play was made up of a series of vignettes, one of which comically featured all four cast members with large cardboard boxes covering them. They staggered around onstage, visually representing the closed boxes we might see ourselves in at times. They eventually peeked out, with their arms poking out of the sides.
Another vignette which left an impression for me featured the cast reading from long lists of daily routines, beginning with the wake up alarm and preparing for work, ending with watching favorite TV shows and going to bed. It was troubling how much these lists reflected my own daily routine. Has every one of my days been that prescribed lately? The egg timer being used rang at the end of each reading, and the actors tucked the lists neatly into their breast pockets.
There were some moments that represented a Monty Python skit, like a discussion of whether a table onstage was a REAL table or merely the representation of a table. Nolan Hamlin, one of the actors in Ratatat, played these scenes up with his incredible facial expressions and crazy body language. Many of the discussions were so ridiculous in their philosophical absurdity that the audience couldn’t help but laugh.
Sometimes it was hard for me to see how these vignettes connected with one another. In and of themselves, they were fine…but both I and a friend struggled to find the connection between sorting out distractions in life and the attempt to define words/terms. This was where the documentary aspect of the show really helped. It was a flotation device in a sea of hilarious nonsense. We can identify with those on the stage who are themselves figuring out their identity. We all have a name, and we all have a history behind that name that informs our lives.
I was proud of my friend Casey, and the whole cast of Ratatat. They’re consistently creating exciting and thought provoking theatre in the Santa Barbara area, and it’s always a joy to see them.
In closing, I had to mention another highlight of the evening. The building where we saw the play featured a bathroom designed like a cave, and it was by far one of the coolest bathrooms I’ve seen. Moody, tinted lighting gave it a 1960s vibe, and I’m convinced that hidden somewhere in there is a passage to another time or place. I wanted to see the play, however….otherwise, I would have gladly stepped through the wormhole.