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Flash Review 1, 8-17: Confessions in the Dark
ERS Loses its Religion

By Rosa Mei
Copyright 2001 Rosa Mei

The opening scene of Elevator Repair Service's new work-in-progress, "Room Tone," has us staring at a blank stage while an actor sitting in the audience prattles away about lost love. He begins rather innocently imagining future conversations with his girlfriend then turns abruptly sociopathic. "I understood well those young men murdering their sweethearts." Some moments like this of "Room Tone," seen last week as part of the Ohio Theatre's Ice Factory series, are very funny; others play like a bad game of charades at someone else's family reunion. Overall, it's witty and quirky enough not to bore us, but not really cogent enough to stimulate us either, often feeling like a barebones reading in acting class. Meisner 101 mixed with extra long blackouts and even longer diatribes on relationships, God, church meetings and spiritual worlds. It's confessional psychobabble with a banana and snippets of Italian thrown in for good measure. This short 45-minute piece quite often leaves the audience -- both literally and metaphorically -- sitting in the dark.

Most, but not all, of the text for "Room Tone" comes from William James's 1902 "Varieties of Religious Experience." The book itself offers a generally optimistic view of life, its purpose being "the systematic cultivation of healthy-mindedness." Not a surprise that James has been quoted in the "There is a Solution" chapter in the original manuscript of "Alcoholics Anonymous, the Big Book." The directors of Elevator Repair Service, John Collins and Steve Bodow, have actually fashioned much of the play in the form of confessional, not unlike those at an AA meeting, though in most cases a bit more metaphysical. Characters talk about states of ecstasy. An odorless God. One woman talks about feeling a conscious presence, a vivid tactile hallucination which compels her to look for an intruder. Indeed all the players here seem to embody James's belief in feeling as the deeper source of religion. "There is a stream, a succession of states, or waves, or fields ... of knowledge, of feeling, of desire, of deliberation, etc., that constantly pass and repass, and that constitute our inner life."

Perhaps "Room Tone" is an Elevator Repair Service homage to James's theory of stream-of-consciousness thinking. Quite appropriate for an experimental theater company known for its meticulously deconstructed texts and slapstick comedy. We sit and gaze at the darkness as a woman spouts out a liturgy of sudden revelations in one long run-on sentence then watch the dreary reaction of another woman half-listening to the confession. An ideal time for the mind to wander.

Theory #2: Perhaps ERS is training its audience to be synesthetes. You know, those people who can hear colors, taste shapes or experience other odd sensory blendings difficult for most of us to imagine. A synesthete might describe the color, shape, and flavor of someone's voice, or music whose sound looks like "shards of glass," a scintillation of jagged, colored triangles moving in the visual field. Thus, in this experiment, we are often allowed to hear, but not see, forcing the voices or ambient sounds to conjure up images where none seem to exist. Just a theory.

Elevator Repair Service's playful, energetic cast -- Jonathan Feiberg, Maggie McBrien, Katherine Profeta, Charlie Schroeder and Susie Sokol -- seem game for just about anything. "Room Tone," in its current state, teeters between high-minded theater and messy lab experiment. Critiquing a piece this raw is rather like judging a Bechamel sauce on the basis of the roux. Still kind of lumpy. Best to wait til it's done simmering. Then, perhaps, we can see more clearly where the odorless God and snippets of Italian fit in.

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