Put a Walter Mitty-esque imagination through an experimental theatre blender, and you may come close to the spirit and tone of Trish Harnetiaux’s new play How to Get into Buildings. Harnetiaux’s fiction-fantasy work may seem kooky and incongruous, but trust in this New Georges company. As the story layers are peeled back the who and the what and the why will mostly become apparent. The not-always-successful experimental form delivers a solid dose of giddiness topped with a dollop of puppy-love.
Harnetiaux’s story structure is meant to mimic an “Exploded View” diagram, such that the individual pieces of the object (in this case a play) are clear but separate from each other. Their relation to the whole is mapped out even if the pieces are not connected up.
Converting this idea to a theatrical endeavor means that Harnetiaux has crafted sharp and distinct scenes that give you a momentary sense of your bearings but also feel for a time isolated and disconnected from the scenes that come before and after it, but eventually it becomes apparent how these moments relate to each other and relate to the bigger picture as more is revealed. Confusing only when you try to spell it out in words. What you’ll experience is slightly dizzying at first but hold fast and you’ll find your equilibrium.
And even if this sounds like an awful lot of work, the mood Harnetiaux’s story generates is quite light— this is ultimately a love story, told in an unconventional way.
With a meet-cute over chopsticks (the utensils and not the song), Roger (Jacob A. Ware) and Lucy (Kristine Haruna Lee) are central to the tale. He’s in town for Comic-Con and a Silver Surfer fanatic. Lucy’s attending a different convention. But there’s something to his neurotic, flustered energy and her warm demeanor that means they persevere in the face of relentless awkwardness. But they are not the only couple we encounter. Daphne (Stephanie Weeks) and Nick (Mike Iveson) are arguing at a diner over omelets, waffles, and maybe the end of their relationship. Ethan (Jess Barbagallo) is reading from a book called The Car Accident. And we think we’ve seen a car accident on stage, but have we? At least a lot of fish have died. Or did they?
As the “Exploded View” gets reconstructed into a play, the “aha” moments start to coalesce. But like the occasional piece of wonky IKEA furniture, there are some leftover pieces of the structure that remain on the floor at the final curtain. Lucy makes frequent calls to Mrs. Rhinehardt (Tina Shepard) in the style of a radio call-in advice show. If this was meant as a potential window into Lucy’s psyche, it never quite added up. There was an underlying self-help nature to various interactions but this one pushed it a bit too far. The shifting identities of “Doctor/Waiters” also left me scratching my head. For a moment they almost made sense and then I’d lose the thread again.
Yet, for a high-concept idea and a low-budget staging, director Katherine Brook manages to shift the setting, mood, and stylistic devices quickly as the script demands. Leaning heavily on smart and distinct sound design by Chris Giarmo, we leap from a car accident to a diner to the convention centre to a spaghetti western with minimal props, and the sound design keeps us grounded.
Brook and Harnetiaux have brought together some highly skilled experimental performance veterans to help deliver on the play’s comedic wackiness. Kristine Haruna Lee makes Lucy so committed to something so off-kilter that you question your own sense of “normal.” She beams and you cannot help but be drawn in. Jacob Ware gives us two distinct sides of Roger such that for a moment you think it’s a different actor playing the role. He’s adorable and hapless and it’s easy to fall for him here.
Yet, as fun as the journey is at times (especially if you love a zany energy and tone) the payoff comes off as a little slight. The adventurous approach to the storytelling adds experiential complexity but that richness faded as soon as I left. Yet whilst in this world of bizarro happenings and unexpected love, it’s a welcome escape.