nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
August 16, 2008
David McGee's whimsical new play, Mare Cognitum, asks both its characters and its audience to take big leaps of faith. For the trio of twentysomethings at the center of this poignant dramedy, it's a matter of believing in the possibility of positive change. Theatergoers, on the other hand, must believe in the magic of the theatre to transport them wherever it wants to. Whether it's the characters or the audience (maybe—hopefully—it's both), whoever takes those leaps will be treated to a unique and gratifying experience courtesy of this lovely new production from Theatre of the Expendable.
Mare Cognitum (the definition of which can be found here) wastes no time establishing its backdrop—a rally protesting some proposed-yet-unspecified government bombing—and its probing protagonists, three roommates who share an apartment. Impulsive Lena attends the protest with idealistic brio, her mantra being, "Think globally. Act locally." Jeff intends to go but drags his heels and never leaves the house. Thomas, the resident skeptic, skips the rally and goes on a job interview instead. Together, they make up an intellectual triumvirate that debates, among other things, the effectiveness of organized protest, the banality of job interviews, and the therapeutic value of going to confession. (You can tell they're all recent college graduates because they stretch ideas to their limits.)
Then, the government starts dropping those bombs and the roommates become fed up with the world. So they build a homemade rocket ship and fly themselves to the moon.
Wait a minute. Do they really?
Well, that's up to the viewer. McGee and director Jesse Edward Rossbrow ingeniously construct the event to be interpreted either way. Whichever way the spectator goes with it hinges on whether one requires a logical explanation or not. (I, personally, found that I did not. I took the leap.) Regardless, Mare Cognitum follows the moon flight with a larger point about the noisy intrusiveness of modern life thwarting all attempts at such big dreaming.
The effectiveness of Theatre of the Expendable's lovely production lies in the clarity and simplicity of its vision. Flashback events get re-enacted and locations seemingly change with almost no confusion thanks to Solomon Weisbard's subtle and evocative lighting design, and Rossbrow's lucid, confident direction. The acting follows suit with a funny and beautifully nuanced performance from Kyle Walters as Jeff. His expert work here, as a young man who wants to participate in life but can never quite find it in himself to join the fray, ought to put him on many a theatergoer's future watch list. Devon Caraway excels as the spunky Lena, endowing her gung ho optimism with authenticity. As Thomas, Justin Howard brings up the rear with some well-played snarky pragmatism.
But, ultimately, Mare Cognitum is about faith and magic, and theatergoers who give in to either/or both will feel as if they've left this world for a time and flown to another.