nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 30, 2008
Flip Side is a whimsical, wise, theatrical meditation on longing, and its close siblings greed, envy, and entitlement. This new piece from The Talking Band is full of surprises and features perhaps the most effective use of computer video (some of it right on the MacBook screen!) that I've ever encountered on stage. And Ellen Maddow's script is full of profound and gloriously elegantly poetry that frequently flies by too quickly to properly savor.
Flip Side takes place in two worlds. In "Side A" we are in Drizzle Plaza, a place of missed connections and missed opportunities, of stifling grimness and sameness that stymies most of its denizens. In "Side B" we go to The Waterfalls, which is more or less (as the play's title suggests) the flip side of Drizzle Plaza; here everything moves to a relentless, frenetic beat and there's too much, rather than too little, to do.
What the people of Drizzle Plaza and The Waterfallls have in common is a desire for something more, and most of them spend their time literally or figuratively pressing their noses against the glass divide that separates the two universes. Typical is Aurora, a gossipy old lady in Drizzle Plaza whose treasured possession is a pair of spectacles—"Tri-Sensuals" she calls them (as opposed to bifocals) that let her see, hear, and possibly even smell what's going on in The Waterfalls.
A clash of cultures is imminent, of course. The catalyst for it is an innocent-seeming flirtation between Alan Flynnalyn of Drizzle Plaza and Sylvia Waterfall. They went to high school together decades ago, and have found each other online in an alumni chatroom. Alan's wife Marilyn eventually becomes furious at being brushed aside by her husband in favor of his new cyberbuddy, and so she packs a suitcase full of treacherous household objects and journeys to The Waterfalls in search of her nemesis and revenge. When the barrier between the two worlds is breached, though, havoc is wrought and then a kind of understanding is achieved by folks from both sides.
Though Flip Side offers us many storylines to follow—there's one involving Sylvia's husband Oscar and the weird neighbor lady who is kind-of stalking him; another about a blossoming love affair between long-term but still tentative acquaintances Daisy and Frank (in Drizzle Plaza, naturally); and yet another about Sylvia's aunt Lucinda, who researches human motion at the molecular level—it is the reunion of Alan and Sylvia that anchors the piece. Their rediscovery of one another in cyberspace—necessarily platonic and rooted inescapably in nostalgia—exemplifies the deep, ineffable, unquenchable longings that everyone in Flip Side experiences.
There's genuine profundity in this play, which somehow is augmented rather than diminished by Paul Zimet's authentically and delightfully playful production. Six actors portray all of the characters in both worlds (Tina Shepard, for example, portrays both Sylvia Waterfall and her "rival," Marilyn Flynnalyn). Clever costuming and dazzling video design facilitate the double-casting, the one making it easy for us to know who's who and the other providing a wondrous way for characters to see and/or talk to one another without having to actually clone anyone. I don't want to give too much away about Anna Kiraly's remarkable video and set design, but let me repeat that it's the most dexterous use of multimedia I've ever come across. There are some moments that just take the breath away, they're so beautiful and simple and elegant.
Shepard, one of The Talking Band's three co-founders (with Maddow and Zimet), is joined on stage by five exceptional collaborators—Will Badgett, David Brooks, John Hellweg, Sue Jean Kim, and Heidi Schreck. All of them create characters with intelligence and brio to spare. There are also a couple of witty puppets used in the piece (courtesy of Ralph Lee), and lots of recorded music composed by "Blue" Gene Tyranny and sung by the Smith College Smithereens and Kim Gambino. Zimet blends all the elements into a cohesive whole that startles, charms, and engages us throughout.
One of my favorite things about Flip Side is that, notwithstanding its Lewis Carroll-ish made-up settings, its characters talk about going to real places like New York City and Las Vegas. That's because the two "Sides" of this play are states of mind and the boundary between them is mental rather than physical. We've all lived in Drizzle Plaza or The Waterfalls sometime during our lives; perhaps we've lived in both at the same time. As soon as we erect that barrier between the two we make it insurmountable; this is a play about balance and moderation, in our needs and wants as well as our daily habits. Which makes it surprisingly resonant and timely in this hectic age of ours.