I think it’s happened to all of us; there’s that one great memory – a perfectly time phrase at just the right moment, or a they’ll-never-believe-this experience you shared with someone, or a you-had-to-be-there anecdote that left the two of you shaking with laughter. Years later you bring up the treasure to your partner in crime with a face-splitting grin: “Hey, remember the time we . . .” only to be greeted with a blank stare. They shake their head, look confused, eyes are vacant . . . no, no . . . they can’t remember. Are you SURE it was them? You start retelling the whole thing in earnest, hoping something will spark their memory but suddenly even though it’s just like yesterday for you, for your friend the moment is gone and might as well have never happened. It leaves you with almost the opposite of deja vu, not a “this happened before” moment, but a “did it really happen?” moment. Now imagine a world where everyone is losing their language; words they said to you just moments ago suddenly become meaningless to them. And if the word becomes meaningless so does the concept. And therefore, so does the conversation. And soon, possibly the whole delicate framework of your relationship begins to lose its meaning. And you can’t do a thing to make them remember . . . so you might as well have experienced it all alone. For all intents and purposes, the whole history of your existence is lost.
Stepping foot into The Realm (written by Sarah Myers and directed by Jessica Fisch) is a little like that experience, and a little like no experience you’ve ever had.
Kansas (Emily Olson) is a girl who lives in The Realm and is somehow immune to (but very much aware of) the thing that exists in the air and robs people of their desires and of their words and eventually of their lives. In the society that Myers has created everyone lives underground, sure that the sunlight will kill them. They talk of inconsequential things, parrot phrases such as “The Future Is Yours!” “Only You are Accountable” and “If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, You’ll never Know When You Get There”, and take measured bites of counted out food and sip water from vials as small as eye droppers. Their lives are plastic and so are their faces; an eerie representation of the fact that no one really needs to be different. No one except Kansas, whose need to be different is so fierce that she hurls herself at the sky and bruises herself over and over again – and gladly so – in an attempt to fly away from what she knows can’t be the only way to exist.
As everyone else starts to age their language begins to leave them; their need for water markedly diminishes, and they all live out cookie-cutter lives where population is controlled in an almost Logan’s Run type fashion with people “retiring” once they hit a certain age and being killed by their children – which is considered an honor and falls to the child who deserves to do it the most. No one questions the odd behavior they all carry out without discussion, they don’t question the semantic double-talk being fed to them constantly in idiomatic soundbites, nor do they question the rules that are in place for their own “good”. No one questions it, because no one quite has the language to do so anymore.
Kansas is confronting this metamorphosis first hand as she watches her friend, James (Aaron Simon Gross) lose his language, and consequently his desire, right before her very eyes. She desperately wants to pretend that he’s like her – immune – but as the days go on, and he begins to forget words he only just spoke, she knows she’s losing him. Still, his transformation isn’t going as well as his parents, Mr. Father (Timur Kocak) and Mrs. Mother (Amy Temple) had hoped; to them he seems slow to progress and in need of Mind Review; a quasi talk-show/reality mind bender ministered by Ms. Analyst (Jessica Pohly), a snippy human soundbite herself who has more up her sleeve than she’s letting on.
Kansas has a counterpart that she’s not even aware of, except for the way she’s somehow spiritually connected, and that’s a woman named Laura (Amy Bodnar), a woman who was once part of The Realm and existed there long enough to lose parts of her language, but was also immune enough to realize that something was being stolen from her. Laura speaks in lovely bits of shards and poetic rifts, almost like a siren call that beckons to Kansas – they twin each other with a fountain of words that become a beautiful duet, joining the two worlds as well as the two women in a hopeful burst.
Sarah Myers has done an amazing job of creating a world that is different enough from ours as to be fantastical, and yet contains enough touchstones so as to be completely identifiable with our own lives. Ultimately, by putting Kansas in a situation where she is in danger of becoming isolated, Ms. Myers has layered in a fear that dwells in all of us – the fear of being misunderstood by those around us; the fear of having to live alone among others who don’t know what we’re talking about. Failure to communicate leads to failure to thrive and flourish. For Kansas she would rather chance the unknown in a land of unfamiliar elements than deal with what she knows will ultimately kill her spirit.
The entire ensemble of The Realm does a masterful job under Jessica Fisch’s direction to bring this alternate reality to life; at no point do they confuse “plastic” with”wooden” or “fake” with “false”. Sarah Myers’ world is delivered to the audience in a complete and seamless package that is at once believable and real. This is also due to Amanda Stephens smart scenic design, Nicole V. Moody’s innovative costume ideas and Paul Toben’s lighting design. Also, acting as almost an additional character is the sound design created by Daniel Kluger and Charles Coes which must help transition James as he goes through his transformation from Kansas-level speaker to adult-level automaton.
The Realm is a place you won’t soon forget – and will leave you grateful for having the words to express how it made you feel.
(You can read my review with Ms. Myers by clicking the picture above or by following the link here.)
presented by Down Payment Productions
The Wild Project (195 East 3rd Street between Avenues A & B)April 3-18, Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm Saturday & Sunday at 3pm with an additional performance on Tuesday, April 13 at 8pm. Tickets ($18) are available online at www.therealmplay.com. Tickets will also be available for purchase at the door, one hour before curtain time.