nytheatre.com review by Maggie Cino
April 5, 2007
[Editor's Note: This is a review of 5 in the Morning, the second of the two pieces presented by Rotozaza at their PS 122 engagement.]
The play begins simply enough. The set is stark white and a sudden bright light comes up, temporarily blinding the audience. Three people, dressed only in swimsuits and towels, walk onto the stage. Soothing but authoritative voices tell them they have arrived in Aquaworld. Each actor follows one of the three voices, which issue commands that escalate in complexity, from "Find another way to wear your towel," to "Bring him back from the dead." They also ask questions that vary in potential responses, from "Are you cold?" to "Is there anything you'd like to change?" and sometimes they just have fun: "Why don't you get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini?"
The play is broken up into segments with different rules. For example, in the second vignette the voices begin to issue only incredibly specific physical directions. They tell the actors precisely where to sit, when to stand, how to hold their hands and legs, exactly what words to say. The only instructions are physical, and as the actors carry out the mechanical commands as precisely as they can. Unexpectedly, a full, rich story of love, flirtation, and jealousy comes out. A big part of the pleasure is the moments of fun the actors have between the instructions when you see the opinions they have about what's happening to them, from thinking the experience is a hoot to finding it kind of scary.
The rules are slightly different for each subsequent vignette, but they all play with degrees of obedience and freedom. Then two thirds of the way through is a key scene. The voices instruct the actors to make a human pyramid. The three actors are three very different sizes—there is a very tall woman, a medium-sized man, and a very small woman. They make the pyramid enthusiastically, sometimes with the larger woman on the bottom, sometimes with the man. But through a series of complicated instructions, the voices make it clear they want the tiny woman to support the weight of her two much larger companions. There is much hesitation and fear as they deal with the stressful endeavor of figuring out how the smallest person can be the bottom of the human pyramid and the biggest person the top. However, it soon becomes clear that this is rehearsed, especially as there is a dramatic, well timed blackout right before the largest woman climbs into place at the top.
After this point, all bets are off. The actors go back to the beginning and repeat the instructions. The voices tell the two women to do the dance that they learned, although we didn't see them learn any dance. The players begin to anticipate the voices. The smallest actor tell the audience they don't really exist. They perform choreographed vignettes that it's doubtful they learned in the few moments they have offstage. It is clear that the actors are in command and knew their parts all along.
The problem is that once it's clear that the actors do know what they're doing a lot of the life goes out of the play. The immediate sympathy we felt for them when they seemed to be victims of the voices is gone. I would imagine this turnaround would have more resonance if you had seen some of Rotozaza's previous work, which put completely unrehearsed performers in similar situations. As it is, the piece is much more vibrant at the beginning, and when the actors later become crushed with the responsibility of taking charge and creating their own reality, the piece feels more routine.
But even so, it's a beautiful production. The spare bright room, the complicated soundscape, even the smell of chlorine at a key moment all bring you directly into this strange, sterile, vulnerable world. And the piece keeps you guessing—before, during, and after—about how much the actors know, how much control they have, and how much everything is planned out beforehand. It is a potent metaphor for the theater, and a potent metaphor for life.