Leaving IKEA: a play in two cantos
nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
June 9, 2012
For some, Ikea is a ginormous store where we trek on special occasions to buy well-designed, inexpensive furniture; for others it is a phenomenon in itself. For Brooklyn-based theatre collective The Artful Conspirators, Ikea is the inspiration for an imaginative play on contemporary relationships. Exploring topics for new projects, the company considered Ikea as a dynamic public space that attracts people at important turning points in their lives. The forces of Ikea bear upon its visitors, bringing unexpressed conflicts to the surface and pushing familial conflicts to the breaking point. The group commissioned two of their playwrights to compose “cantos” based on these themes. The resulting work, Leaving Ikea feels to me like two distinct plays rather than one fully-assembled piece, each delivering a different impact.
Canto I, written by Dano Madden, finds couple Marcus and Roy in an Ikea living room set-up, anticipating a visit from Marcus’s Midwest parents. Flamboyant Roy is comfortable in his own skin and decorating skills. Marcus seems anxious; he soon reveals that he had lied to Roy when they met about being out to his parents. Roy wants to storm out of the store, but can’t find his way out. The couple are zapped into an Ikea time-warp—separated from each other but trapped in the store. In this vague temporal dimension, they rebound with Ikea employees and play out scenes of Marcus’ past and future with his parents—who have somehow been transported here as well— all in an effort to attempt to sort through their feelings for each other.
Monica Flory’s Canto II introduces a young married couple buying a crib. Bethany might give birth any moment and is understandably edgy, especially with husband Dan expressing ambivalence about the responsibilities of parenthood. Their quarrel conjures a chorus of lost souls trapped in the store by their own unresolved relationships, and an evil Ikea Gnome who steals the couple’s unborn baby. Dan and Bethany must undergo a series of tasks, ranging from reliving important moments of their past to assembling furniture and cooking meals with the Ikea food inventory. The play becomes a modern fairy tale, in which this couple must face their own fears and assume maturity to recover their child and escape the maze of perils facing them in the store.
I found the second piece to be the stronger play. Flory makes smart use of fairy tale devices re-imagined for an Ikean universe and sets her heroes on a journey that is rewarding to follow. Although we meet Dan and Bethany in a state of conflict, the play allows us (and them) to discover that they really do love each other. Actors Molly Lloyd and Marshall York as Bethany and Dan find strong emotional grounding within this fantasy world, while Paul Kite chews the stage with mad gusto as the villainous Gnome. The chorus of doomed shoppers, incanting and chanting a parody of Shakespearean verse, contributes to the imaginative atmosphere and provides other perspectives on the challenges of commitment.
Madden’s first play aims to look at the impact of lies on his couple; but after some initial revelations of past falsehoods, the conflict stagnates. Learning that one’s boyfriend is not out to emotionally distant parents strikes me as a weak reason to leave an otherwise functioning relationship, but we see no other motivation for Roy’s reaction. I appreciate how invested actors Jason Carden and Shane Taylor are in playing the stakes of their conflict, but I find their characters’ objectives unclear. It may be that the time travel device of this play overpowers an authentic look at the people involved. Ultimately, I don’t see how the couple is changed by their Ikea experience, or why I want them to stay together when they leave.
I admire how David Miller’s production embraces largeness on many levels. He deftly moves his Conspirators around the vast Brooklyn Lyceum and fills the space with committed, larger-than-life performance from his actors. Jen Varbalow’s witty set gives us three life-sized Ikea room displays: blandly inviting rooms that seem to float in a warehouse purgatory provided by the surrounding architecture. Industrial lighting by Kate Ashton contributes a big store atmosphere, switching to eerie blue florescent when the stories get other-worldly. Miller’s choice to use entirely different casts for each canto gives opportunities for many actors to play in this theatrical world, but also contributes to a feeling of two distinct, if parallel, plays. Leaving The Artful Conspirators’ Ikea, I didn’t have many new insights into relationships in my big blue bag. Still, I found this production, like a trip to the store, to be an engaging experience.