both hands theatre
Liberty Warehouse, Durham
The premise has a Twilight Zone feel to it—with more than a touch of Ray Bradbury in the mix. Five strangers from across the country respond to an official—if cryptically worded—summons to meet at a storage facility on a dingy side street in a medium-sized Southern city.
The site is actually a cavernous old warehouse more than a city block in length. Once given to the conveyance of tobacco, now its beams of dark heartwood shoulder up to a massive tin roof to shelter an eccentric grid of bins made from wire fencing, wood and metal pipe. They stretch down provisional alleyways farther than the eye can see. Their contents: a seemingly endless miscellanea of dusty mercantile effects: empty display cases, rolling coat racks and innumerable stacks of boxed, ancient business records. In their midst, a smooth, large and empty cement thoroughfare gradually descends before us, deep into ... well, who knows what, exactly?
If it seems the kind of space that's big enough to store the past, that's because, in the world of this story, it is. Particularly if your name happens to be Avery Liberty, as we quickly find is the case with all five of the people assembled here. In this world, the moments of their lives haven't been housed in some subset of the hippocampus; apparently, they've been kept off-site instead. The problem? The firm that the management subcontracted with to tidy things up a bit has misplaced the records matching the proper person with their collection of memories. The untenable result: people dying, their lives flashing before their eyes—and it's not even their own lives.
"That would be ... just ... wrong," says the unlikely quintet's even more unlikely host, "Speed" Riggs, a disembodied clerk. Riggs, who says he's been on the job for 117 years, "borrows" his guests' voices and bodies to deliver clues, exposition (plus some snazzy dance steps) when they ring an office bell for questions. Though Riggs is based on a famous mid-century tobacco auctioneer, his character's archaic razzmatazz and Jurassic salesman patter wears noticeably thin before all of the assembled are, inevitably, possessed at different points.
Tamara Kissane and director Cheryl Chamblee's script features at least some of the intricately woven spoken-word counterpoint we've admired in earlier works. Unfortunately, despite the considerable ambience of their performance space, the Liberty Warehouse in downtown Durham, its barn-like acoustics too frequently play havoc with the pair's most delicate weavings of words.
The new work also extends the overtly therapeutic bent of their last several works. Upon entering, we're asked to write on name tags not only our names but how we spend much of our time. In the show, characters confuse each other's bins by assuming, sight unseen, that theirs has the highest or lowest life-satisfaction ratio (an identifier that apparently didn't get lost in the shuffle). If the moments passing before them weren't enough, helpful (but obvious) printouts further reveal the truth of their lives.
Kissane and Chamblee do try to diversify the socioeconomic strata of their subjects. One (a delightful Laurie Wolf) is a senior nurse; another (Beth Popelka) is a tattoo artist; a third (a goofy-voiced Lance Waycaster) is a butcher. But in the end, all five are still Americans, most still within shouting range of middle class, and their range of experiences seems pretty narrow—contoured, perhaps, to reflect the young audience viewing @ liberty.
But, particularly given the primacy that names have in this production, we're left to wonder what the warehouses, the life experiences—and, of course, those all-important life-satisfaction ratios—look like for people with names much different than these. Names like Bruce Nizeye, for instance. Or Centelia Maldonado. Or Abu Sarmad. (Yes, these names are real.)
No doubt it is inappropriate to hate a single hospital because it doesn't begin to cover an entire world. Granted, if you dig deep enough, most of us are in need of some sort of healing. But aren't there others more in need of intervention than those depicted here? And this is @ liberty's greatest drawback, that it seems to consider those already, well, at liberty, and no one else.
E-mail Byron Woods at email@example.com.