Allesandro Magania and Mandy Caugheyin Invisible Messages
(© Joan Marcus)
Allesandro Magania and Mandy Caughey
in Invisible Messages
(© Joan Marcus)
In contemporay theater, self-conscious meditations on the nature of performance have become as commonplace Hollywood heist films, so it takes special insight and style to make such a project memorable. Loosely inspired by writer and director Peter S. Petralia's trip along the Trans-Siberian Railway, Proto-type Theater's Invisible Messages, now in the middle of a limited run at PS 122, succeeds only partially in this respect.

The show weaves together three surrealistic vignettes about search, flight, and disappearance; in each, the actor uses his or her real name for her fictional alter ego. "Meredith Smart" suffers from a debilitating depression caused by a chemical imbalance in her brain, but once an experimental surgery cures her, she starts to revisit all of the experiences that she was unable to enjoy earlier. "Mandy Caughey" fell down a well as a toddler but has no recollection of the event until a TV movie about her is made years later; she then travels around the world to find the organ donors that saved her life. "Alessandro Magania," who grew up in Italy in the shadow of his older brother, flees to America to escape his stern and disapproving father.

Alessandro goes to absurd lengths to avoid his problems. In one of the show's funniest scenes, he delivers a lecture on "How to Disappear," giving advice on extreme measures to alter one's appearance, selecting a phony social security number, and removing every strand of hair that can be traced for DNA. Mandy offers the opposite perspective by teaching the audience "How to Be Famous." For people who can't swing it through talent or heroism, she helpfully suggests staging a tragedy such as being the sole survivor of a plane crash, which she acknowledges may be difficult to execute.

While all three of the stories score points for humor and originality, only Alessandro's gives the audience the chance for emotional investment. Even the most whimsical elements of his story are grounded through interesting character development. His family drama explains why he longs for escape, and every step of his journey is revealed in vivid detail. Before he leaves to go to Russia, for example, he dyes his hair and discards personal documents in the bathroom of Heathrow Airport. In Russia, he checks the Internet compulsively for news of his disappearance.

On the other hand, Meredith and Mandy are underdeveloped, and their journeys seem to be the result of quirky plot devices. That's a shame, because both of their stories explore interesting issues. The idea that Mandy has organ transplants from around the world is an idiosyncratic metaphor for an age in which people describe their ethnicities with several hyphens; but this quest for postmodern identity has little dramatic impact because Mandy only decides to look for her donors on a whim.

Before her surgery, Meredith says that she feels trapped, wrapped up in trivial concerns, and too afraid of the future to enjoy the present -- problems experienced by people at various degrees of mental health. Although the playwright may be trying to show how common the character's "depression" is, the vague way in which he describes it makes her less of a character than a walking and talking dramatic idea.

Proto-type Theater is known for its innovative staging, and this production underscores the play's ideas about perspectives. For example, Mandy delivers her lines behind a white sheet while Meredith videotapes her for a live feed that's projected onto the back of the stage; audience members can choose to watch the footage or to observe Mandy in shadow. There are many ways to read Petralia's intriguing and attractive Messages, but those searching for well-constructed narratives are advised to search elsewhere.