By a Thread

Elevator tres

ELE↓↑TOR

Written and designed by Chris Chappell
Directed by Patrice Miller

June 8—26, 2013

The Brick Theater, 575 Metropolitan Ave., Brooklyn, USA

We’re all authorities on the history of what was supposed to happen. Millennial visions, renegade political candidates, career ambitions and unmarried soulmates; we know what we hoped for better than what we’ve had to live through. The voices in our heads are an ironic counterpoint to the sound-centric current series at the off-indie Brick Theater, which concentrates on the audio environment of what we have to imagine onstage and the outward signs we need to listen for in life. Sound-design is an essential component of theatrical illusion, brought to the foreground in the “sound scape” festival and surrounding the characters unseen but vastly in ELE↓↑TOR, by playwright and sound designer Chris Chappell.

We’re stuck in an elevator with three men, and have no choice, chiefly because they represent three stages of the self we can never get away from. Ian (Patrick Andrew Jones) is the young, already burnt-out serf of some commodities company, Harry (Bill Weeden) the near- retirement entrepreneur facing the tedium he’s held off for decades with unfulfilled distraction, and Rodney (Bob Laine) the midlife technician at the zenith of his belief in himself and reality’s potential.

They’re each on their way to some weekend work in a depopulated Empire State Building, when existential suspension ensues with the stalling of the mechanism. The half-heard details of daily chance encounters are magnified to mortal bafflement as these three corners of human self-image are caught within the four walls, Harry’s assurance and Ian’s pleading of no use as a suddenly prophetic and inclusively suicidal Rodney asserts himself as the agent random fate has chosen to radically remake the building and carry out a preposterous idea of city planning from forgotten Industrial Revolution-era urban myth.

The specifics of that plan are best left to the audience member whose jaw will drop like a plummeting cabin during the show’s remaining run; suffice it to say that Chappell is an attentive student of extinct reformist crusades, outdated futures and prematurely presumed destinies, a talent he and director Patrice Miller sharpened well in their co-written play The Moose That Roared last year, which detailed the doomed third-party insurgency of Teddy Roosevelt and the arcadian aspirations of his Forest Service chief.

Laine hijacks the show with his eerie serenity and hair-trigger threats, and Chappell’s articulate, clever script shows a keen ear for the illuminating absurdities of self-styled saviors who have a zeal to be agreed with but no urgency about being understood. In our uncertain decade we don’t know if we’re going up or down, and this contemporary psychocomedy at times seems much more alien than the creative team’s earlier period piece; the Franz Kafka-via-Charlie Kaufman sense of workaday menace and semi-divulged master plans is as vivid as it is undefined.

A disembodied Jeff Lewonczyk’s pinched panic as an overwhelmed and ulterior emergency-call voice, and Weeden’s short-fused indignation, express this particularly well, and the sonic environment paints a strong picture of the commanding but unknown. We are captively aware of the substance of sound in the industrial rumble of tracks and cables, and just as sensitive to the departure of sound when this drops out, partially for Laine’s messianic soliloquies or altogether for Weeden’s pained gestures.

Beamed in or blocked out, consciousness of sound is continuous as sensory presence or textual theme, from the recorded menu of intrusive muzak, jolting construction noise and bizarre robo-callers and archival speech, to Harry’s silent-movie-comedian pantomime demands for Ian to shut up, to Rodney’s monologues about the reassuring din of cities and his obsessive mantras about “focusing on doing nothing” and notations of what “has gone unremarked on.”

The precision of Miller’s direction is the production’s magic mechanism, meshing these extreme but not caricatured personalities in a palette of creeping doubts and disastrous self-certainty. The characters are thrown together and drift apart with more lessons learned on our side of the stage than theirs, and ELE↓↑TOR is an often hilarious, always thoughtful reflection on just how much we should welcome the sound of our own voice.

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