The existence of alternate realities is a theme that turns up most often in fiction and film, and not usually in the theater.
Novels like Philip Roth’s The Counterlife and movies like Inception test our ability to distinguish one level of existence from another, and ask us further to consider whether our own reality might be less dependable than we imagine.
On stage, though, alternate realities aren’t quite so convincing; it’s hard to suggest the fluidity of consciousness in the stubborn three dimensions of a theater, and the rapid changes in a movie like Total Recall (based on a Philip K. Dick story) just aren’t feasible where heavy bodies have to be deployed. Maybe that’s why Strindberg’s Dream Play doesn’t seem dreamlike, and why the memory sequences in Death of a Salesman don’t at all have the suddenness and brevity of real memories. For that matter, I’ve never seen a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that really felt dreamlike: that just isn’t theater’s forte.
Well, now Stageworks is bringing us a play about shifting realities, and it’s provocative and stimulating while still suffering from the obstinate solidity of theater. Richard Strand’s Ten Percent of Marta Solano is about a woman who goes to her local Department of Motor Vehicles to ask that an error in her driver’s license be fixed, and is then rocketed into a world of impossible transformations.
Marta Solano is a pretty much ordinary person, a visual artist who occasionally sells a painting or print, and when she goes to the DMV to fix a glitch in her address, she has no idea what sort of mess she’s about to get into. Her first inkling comes when she discovers that her local paper, simply called the Tribune, has published her obituary even though she’s entirely alive. When she goes to the newspaper office to demand a retraction, she finds that the editor is the same man who took her complaint at the DMV, that he works out of an identical office, and that, as at the DMV, one of her paintings adorns his wall.
The puzzle becomes even more perplexing when she goes to a bank to complain about the repossession of her house, and discovers that the bank official she’s sent to speak to is again the same man from the DMV and the Tribune, only now he insists he’s a woman named “Mrs. Rogers.” As for his/her office, it’s virtually identical to the previous two.
More transformations follow with increasingly extreme results, and finally we have to ask whether what we’re watching is a nightmare, a view of hell, or, perhaps, the schizophrenic experience of the very troubled Marta Solano. Is anything we see “real”? Is Marta Solano’s problem in some important way also our own?
The good news is that, even with a rather mediocre office set (by Eric W. Haak), and with that aforementioned resistance of the three-dimensional theater to dreamlike textures, Marta Solano does eventually boggle the mind — just as it aims to. Still, the hard edges of staged reality don’t really soften up in this treatment, and it’s easier to think of the play as a test of logic than to feel it as a dream or a psychotic episode.
Dawn Truax as Marta Solano does a wonderful job of suggesting, at first, an ordinary, sensible woman and then, as the changes multiply, a frenzied fatalist. But Ron Bobb-Semple as The Man brings no complexity to his characters, offering instead a few broad attitudes which defeat our scrutiny and finally lose our interest. Richard Coppinger’s direction doesn’t aspire to the dreamlike — I wish it did — nor does Mike Wood’s lighting. But in accordance with Strand’s script, a different landscape turns up outside the window in each new scene, as does a new sign on the door into The Man’s office. Unfortunately, these changes aren’t sufficient; more directorial and design ingenuity are needed to make the most of this challenging script.
One last complaint: Strand’s diction isn’t very interesting, and there’s hardly a line that you’d want to hear twice. Still, Marta Solano at least dares to take us on a mind-bending ride, and succeeds in making us struggle with its paradoxes. This isn’t a complete triumph, but it keeps the play interesting and, at its best moments, a welcome vacation from straight-ahead realism.