Signal Ensemble Theatre. By Jon Steinhagen. Directed by Ronan Marra. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Dan Jakes
Jon Steinhagen's new slice-of-life play reminded me a bit of HBO's 2007 multimedia Voyeur Project, in which an apartment is cross-sectioned to reveal brief but telling moments in the ordinary lives of the nameless tenants within. By design, it seems, Ronan Marra's world premiere for Signal Ensemble Theatre feels like a living art installation itself, for better and worse.
Several days into a blistering heatwave, a power outage interrupts the days and nights of 100 or so urban characters in 50 micro-scenes. Cell phone battery life becomes a precious resource, arguments between couples boil over, and a Waldorf and Statler pair pop in and out to comment on the heat.
The term experimental gets tossed around a lot in the non-equity scene, but Steinhagen is legitimately manipulating form and character conventions here, giving them a twist, and seeing what shakes out. As one of the play's few constants, guitarist Craig Winston provides an ambient, meditative soundtrack off to the corner of the action, and it complements Buck Blue's modern and romantic set. For a nearly empty stage that's required to be repurposed every few minutes or so, the ambiance Marra creates aurally and visually have a serene and fantastical quality that pairs well with some of Steinhagen's magical realism twists.
Despite able performances, the stories themselves are interesting morsels, but don't really build to anything impactful. There are through-lines, to be sure; a man (Matthew J. Lloyd) comes to terms with his schizoaffective disorder. A couple (Tyler Rich and Nelson Rodriguez) bicker themselves into serious relationship reevaluation. By dropping in to characters so sporadically, it's easy to understand the purpose of each scene, but difficult to feel for anyone. By eschewing traditional structure, Steinhagen sacrifices emotional rise, so minute 70 of the one-act feels essentially the same as minute 20. Gimmicks like five monologues delivered without context in different languages do little to alter the feeling Devil's Day Off is more of an ambitious exercise than a finished product.