Leave it to Whistler in the Dark to give us a dark romance set the day after the 9/11 attacks where Joyce Carol Oates appears as a sock puppet. Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events (at the Factory Theatre through March 24th) is lighter than the material the Whistlers usually take on (at least recently), and mostly thanks to Nathaniel Gundy’s groovy performance as Ron, and Meg Taintor’s sock-puppeteering as Joyce Carol Oates, the show is the funniest thing I’ve seen in a while. It’s this well executed comedy and wit that carries the play through it’s darker and sometimes tedious scenes about loss, blind dates, and a dialogue on free will vs. determinism.
Recent Tragic Events has a thick coat of meta. It actually begins with a scripted speech by the house manager (Jen O’Connor/Melissa Barker), who has a volunteer toss a coin, then goes on to explain how the result of that coin toss will determine the course of action in the play…and that the points where the play turns in a direction set by the coin toss will be signaled by sounding a bell. This is pretty much how the first act goes. Awkward Andrew (Alejandro Simoes) shows up for a blind date at Waverly’s (Aimee Rose Ranger) Minneapolis apartment, as the news cycle reports from Ground Zero and Waverly tries to reach her twin sister in New York. Ding! Waverly’s nutty neighbor Ron drops in. Ding! Waverly gets a call from her great aunt Joyce Carol Oates who is in town for the night due to a canceled flight and wants to to drop by. Ding!
We’re not really sure what’s going on as the House Manager’s explanation is vague at best, but we are led to believe that the play is some kind of elaborate Hypertext. A kind of Choose Your Own Adventure performance where actors must have had to memorize any number of possible outcomes and shift through this maze of forking paths without dropping a line.
After intermission, it’s revealed that this was all BS and Recent Tragic Events is, in fact, a normal play with a normal script. Wright tricks us. He wants us to read a layer of hypertextuality into the plot. So that when the bell rings while Andrew makes one of his many attempts at a nervous egress from Waverly’s apartment or Waverly can’t get through to her sister for the nth time, we think the narrative is exercising some kind of non-linearity based on that coin toss. That chance is playing a role here and not everything is predetermined.
Why did Wright go to all this trouble? Because the play takes on 9/11, romance, and family tragedy with a little healthy debate on free will and determinism. Seeing the 9/11 attacks as “deterministic” was a little controversial the day after they happened, but Wright gives his characters the advantage of a not-so-rattled perspective, as if they’ve had more time to think on it. Ever cosmically-in-tune Ron, takes the side of determinism, outrightly taking a ‘we had it coming’ position and ends up over his head in a heated debate with Joyce Carol Oates who, being a sock puppet, naturally believes in free will. She calls Ron’s philosophy “fashionable determinism.” In defense of free will, Oates cites the same mental process from Wright’s little trick on the audience in the first act: that we read determinism into what is actually random, perceiving connections that aren’t there.
I find this sort of stuff pretty interesting, but just not here, even though Whistler’s execution of this end of the play is as good as I can imagine it being. Melissa Barker’s charismatic performance as the house manager; Taintor’s voicing of Oates’ diatribes and her characterization of both Oates’ cool aunt status and her abrasive ego; and Nathaniel Gundy’s confident performance of Ron with a voice like Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, are all excellent and a whole lot of fun. As the couple on the blind date from hell, Aimee Rose Ranger and Alejandro Simoes, more or less enter into Wright’s debate on free will and determinism thematically, through the bizarre series of events that has brought them together and left them in what is, for a first date, a very uncomfortable scenario. These two don’t get to have as much fun as the rest of the cast, but Ranger tackles the extreme emotions of her character extraordinarily well and Simoes gives Andrews’ meek betaness a well thought out pace.