When I say that a play lacks theatrical ideas, I don’t mean that it's missing a philosophy. By “idea” I intend something new in plot or dialogue, in characterizations or relationships. When Willy Loman tells his wife Linda that he couldn’t make the trip to New England, that’s an idea. When we next learn that Willy’s son Biff is visiting his parents after a long absence, that’s a new idea. When Biff moments later confides to his brother that Willy mocks him all the time, that’s, you guessed it, a new idea; and when Biff follows this with a short monologue describing his love of working on a farm, that’s yet another — and so on. Sometimes an idea is a plot element: Willy asks his boss for a New York job and instead is fired; and sometimes it’s about character: Happy admits that he takes revenge on this bosses at work by seducing their fiancées. A successful play can have dozens of these things, even if it’s as apparently static as Waiting for Godot (Didi and Gogo consider suicide, Lucky “thinks” aloud in the famous monologue, Pozzo goes blind, the Boy comes with word from Godot, etc.). But one thing is certain: A play short on ideas rapidly becomes boring. Especially in our wired, post-MTV world, the lack of change from moment to moment can be exceedingly exasperating.
And that’s how I feel about Pilgrims, the new play by Claire Kiechel currently playing at Sarasota’s Urbanite Theatre: exasperated. In the 85 minutes of the drama, I found about 15 minutes of ideas, and for the other 70 minutes I had no choice but to wait, not always patiently, for something new to be said, to be discovered, to happen.
Let me tell you everything you need to know: A soldier moves into his room in an interplanetary spacecraft. A 16-year-old girl comes into the room and tells him she’s been assigned as his roommate. The girl is spunky and chatty and almost immediately seductive. The soldier is cold, easily angered and repeatedly standoffish. There’s the suggestion that both are hiding something in their pasts. A female robot arrives, and it turns out that she’s good for sexual services. The two main characters play-act a bit, then we learn their secrets. The play ends.
All right, there’s a little bit more than that. But for most of Pilgrims we’re just seeing variations on the few themes delineated above, and all those repetitions feel to me like wasted time. The script doesn’t help its actors either. Betsy Helmer as the girl is obviously talented, but is required to repeat the same attitudes so often, there’s next to nothing to learn by paying attention to her after the first quarter hour. Brendan Ragan as the soldier displays a two-dimensional brusqueness from his very first entrance, and seldom travels far from it, at least not until he, near the end, bares his soul. Perhaps the best performance is by Cameron Morton as the robot Jasmine: She’s supposed to be monotonously predictable, after all. Fortunately, Jerid Fox’s set of a futuristic cabin dominated by a large bed is attractive to the eye, as are Alison Gensmer’s costumes. Carl Forsman’s direction is competent enough, though one can’t help but wish he’d insisted on more dimensionality from his actors, in spite of the script. The fine lighting is by the consistently impressive Ryan E. Finzelber.
Some other problems I have with the text of Pilgrims: I do not believe, as apparently I’m supposed to, that the planners of the space voyage deliberately assigned the girl and the soldier to the same cabin. I do not believe that these two never have time out of the cabin, and I do not believe that the girl is able to break down the soldier’s resistance by locking herself in the only bathroom for many hours. The soldier’s soul-revealing monologue? Too punctual and hackneyed. The suggestion that what we’re seeing is the old, bad colonialism, transferred to the galactic stage? Too PC and cliché. In fact, I found the entire science-fiction aspect of the play underdeveloped. I’ve been a sci-fi fan since childhood, yet all I could discover were the gaping holes in this scenario. Oh, for a play even half as inventive as a typical Ray Bradbury story!
Anyway, Urbanite Theatre has brought us some real winners over its short lifetime, and I have no doubt there will be triumphs to come. Let’s call Pilgrims a meaningless hiccup and move on. To plays with ideas. Lots of them. All adding up to something.
And so rewarding us for going to the theater.