Plank is a poetic drama by John Greiner-Ferris that mashes Darwin's theory of the origin of life into our current political quandary and determines that the human race might be better off adrift at sea. Now in its world premiere production at Boston Center for the Arts, the play, by the newly formed Alley Cat Theater, sets down uneasily onstage as an odyssey of magical realism that meanders from ocean to land to mirror the difficulties of the first fish that washed ashore countless eons ago. If you can imagine sitting for two hours to watch the tides ebb and flow, you might come close to the experience of this evening in the theater.
The play opens with a woman adrift on a plank of wood. Potpee (Poornima Kirby) finds herself buffeted by waves, fishes, and seaweed, personified by four actors — Liz Adams, Sydney Grant, Fray Cordero, and Adam Lokken — who reel and tumble around her. The ensemble also provides companionship of a sort, even passing her a book (Moby Dick) and a Coke and half-sandwich for her lunch.
Potpee (which, according to the playwright, is an acronym for "Person on the Plank") speaks aloud, questioning her existence and the eternal condition of self as time passes, perhaps many days and nights, before she ultimately winds up on land. She is barefoot and bedraggled, unlike the two women who come to her rescue: Mercedes (Adams), a vigorous, loud-mouthed woman of conviction and morality, and the naïve child Thimble (Grant), both actors transformed from ocean folk into members of contemporary society. Mercedes is dressed in military-looking red, white, and blue as a reminder of a certain powerful member of the current White House staff, and carries an official clipboard in her flag-embellished purse. She and Thimble are clutching cellphones.
During their private conversations together, Potpee recognizes a kindred spirit in Thimble, who questions the rules and regulations spouted by Mercedes, although the younger woman tries to resist probing questions. Rather than returning dust to dust, the playwright prefers to end the play according to Darwin, but with a surprise punch.
Director Megan Schy Gleeson has framed the story in physical action, wrapping the scenes on the ocean in modern dance movement, seemingly relying on the devised theater style for the ensemble's help with improvisation. Throughout the watery scenes, the cast physically responds to the action with a fluid, repetitive motion that mimics the sea.
Kirby as Potpee is a mesmerizing presence, enhanced by her large, expressive eyes. She is onstage for the entire production. Since there is no exposition to explain her predicament, she is forced to play the character as more of a metaphor. But Kirby manages to endow Potpee with emotions, fears, visible shivers, and an uncertain balance that suggest a reality to the metaphysical discussion. As a foil to the increasingly dismayed Potpee, Adams as Mercedes comes on too strong in her role, especially in the confines of the small theater space.
The design team — which consists of scenic designer, JiYoung Han, Barbara Craig, creator of the lighting and projections, sound designer, Ned Singh, and composers Peter Warren and Matt Somalis — are the heroes of the production. Together, they have provided a beautiful and evocative environment of ocean, sky, and land. The way in which they physically establish the passage of time within all of these elements captures the playwright's intentions more fully than the often fuzzy philosophy of the dialogue.
Plank might appeal to viewers with a tolerance for the contemplation of reading a book or savoring the imagery of a poem, but it is not yet a robust theatrical experience. However, that's not to deny the warranted fears for our nation that Greiner-Ferris expresses in the play, worries we should all share about Mother Nature's rampage because of our careless stewardship of the planet.
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