nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 25, 2009
Martin Dockery's The Surprise is a funny, warm, and entertaining hour of storytelling. Directed with economy by Jean-Michele Gregory, the piece juggles a couple of interlocking narratives, which are sometimes told out of chronological order, and deftly holds our interest until the final moment. Possibly even beyond that—Dockery ends the piece with a bit of a cliffhanger that makes us wonder if a "Surprise II" is in his (our) future.
The nature of the eponymous surprise is disclosed right away in the piece (and on Dockery's podcast for nytheatrecast's Frigid Festival preview; download it here); so I don't feel any compunction in revealing it here. Dockery and his girlfriend, Elke, are planning a trip to Southeast Asia and they plan to visit Martin's father, who has lived in Vietnam for several years. Before the journey, however, he finds out that his dad has a girlfriend in Vietnam...and two twin children who are three-and-a-half years old.
So much of The Surprise focuses around the theme of why Martin's father had failed to share this news with his elder son, and how said son processes and deals with the sudden discovery of a second family half a world away.
But even more of the show is given over to Martin's relationship with Elke, which has arrived at a precarious place as they set out on this trip to Asia. Their objective—apart from visiting Martin's dad—is to take a spiritual pilgrimage to Angkor Wat, the great Cambodian Buddhist temple. But their union is in danger of being pulled apart by some underlying issues, and these are explored as Dockery relates the progress of their trip.
The style of The Surprise is kind of a hybrid between the Spalding Gray/Mike Daisey stationery stream-of-consciousness model and the more actorly one-man-play-with-many-characters format. Dockery holds the audience enthralled as he quickly assumes and drops various character personas with slight adjustments to his voice and posture. Among the characters who appear in The Surprise, apart from those already named, are a geeky American tourist named James, a pair of Dutch girls at Angkor Wat, Martin's younger brother Tim and his new brother and sister, and perhaps most memorably an anonymous Cambodian girl selling Christmas ornaments outside the temple.
The piece feels like it could use some fleshing out (the hour-long time limit at FRIGID may have something to do with that); while it's never less than entertaining, The Surprise would be more compelling if Martin were taking some kind of figurative journey along with his literal one in the story. As things stand right now, his character is almost entirely reactive, and he doesn't really change or progress from the beginning to the end of the show. A transformational arc would give the audience something to hang on to.
But this is nevertheless a superlative solo storytelling show, one that offers plenty to laugh about, relate to, and ponder long after the storyteller has left the stage.