The production of Spike Friedman’s Returning to Albert Joseph last weekend at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance’s Adams Memorial Theatre not only tugged at the audience’s heartstrings, but also left them craving a more detailed view of the play’s gloomy, dystopian world.
To imagine the world depicted in the show put on by the Satori Group, an experimental theater troupe based in Seattle, Wash., think The Hunger Games meets Waiting for Godot. One thing is evident before the play even begins: We are and will remain outsiders looking in on a totally foreign setting. Black, interlocking bars that imitate rectangular glass panels place a barrier between the audience and a familiar, suspiciously pristine elementary schoolroom on set.
As soon as we wrap our heads around this setup, however, chaos ensues. The lights go out, banging and clattering noises engulf the theatre and, after discerning some dark silhouettes, we see the schoolroom presumably plundered and destroyed. Finally, the dust settles and the lights come back on, but they appear dimmer and sadder, a tasteful touch by lighting designer Isabella F. Byrd.
Enter Andrea (Alex Highsmith) and Leo (Quinn Franzen ’09). Through strong writing – an aspect of the play beyond reproach – we soon learn that Andrea and Leo are party to some somber, post-apocalyptic narrative full of “guardsmen,” “gatherings of remembrance,” clandestine meetings of a subversive resistance movement and a host of other tropes that for them must be pregnant with meaning, but leave the audience groping for answers. Throughout the next 90 minutes, the play jumps back and forth between speeches about suspenseful and traumatic memories that took place in this alternate, sci-fi reality, and Andrea and Leo’s more present predicament: Andrea’s search for food and Leo’s complete loss of memory.
Although Highsmith does most of the talking for the first hour as she repeatedly tries to jog her confused companion’s memory, Franzen still shows masterful acting skills, responding to physical and verbal abuse, harassment and cajoling as a real person would. More often than not in the first half of the play, Leo sits on the floor cross-legged, hands folded, while Andrea stands near the chalkboard like a teacher. But eventually these roles are inverted, and it is Leo who mounts the proverbial rostra, reciting childhood memories and reconstituting himself, a motif undoubtedly on the playwright’s mind. An hour and a half of this emotionally charged back and forth, however, can tire an audience, especially when it almost completely lacks comic relief, a minor flaw in an otherwise engaging production.
It’s impossible to watch Returning to Albert Joseph without a sense of wonder, both about the characters’ backstories and about the play’s overarching narrative. While the play focuses increasingly on Andrea and Leo, it has such a strong flavor of dystopian fiction that it reminds one of A Clockwork Orange, another work that throws its consumers into the deep end of an apparently unrecognizable world and leaves them to figure things out for themselves. Even so, the Satori Group’s “experimental” production, a label that may have made some Bard lovers uneasy, still delivered everything good about theater and then some. A potential audience member would not feel like Spike Friedman or the director, Caitlin Sullivan ’07, were trying too hard or touting experimentalism for its own sake; Returning to Albert Joseph has resonance beyond the stage.
As a cultural artifact, it is a manifestation of a larger fascination with catastrophe and apocalypse and how people respond to both. Just think how many successful book, film and video game franchises in the past decade have used dystopian settings and narratives: Fallout, Gears of War, Divergent and of course, The Hunger Games. Thus, although this play reflects the trend, it is successful for the same reason as those other titles – because of its character development and its ultimate insistence on personal stories.