Theater nerds, rejoice! All others? Well, you may find yourself a bit confused when you see Terrence McNally's new play, And Away We Go, directed by Jack Cummings III and now staged at The Pearl. To help you get through, you may want to bone up on Aeschylus, Shakespeare, the Burbages, French theater, Chekhov, and Beckett (you know, the basics) before you enter, because this rollicking production, which gambols higgledy–piggledy through the history of histrionics, can delight if you know what to look for.
And Away We Go is essentially a vessel of a play with many plots wiggling around inside, all of which intersect and blend in mind-bending ways over the course of an hour and forty-five minutes. Between the show's opening scene — where the actors literally introduce themselves onstage and provide brief biographies — and the end, the audience is transported to six different periods in history, meeting an acting troupe each time.
The place to start is the set. Designed by Sandra Goldmark, who has stocked the stage with props and paraphernalia, from ancient Greek masks to a large stuffed fish, to dozens and dozens of lighting fixtures, the set gives the impression that this enormous room has perhaps accumulated all these artifacts since the first play was performed. With that before us, the show begins.
The first stop on our journey through theater history is backstage at a production of The Oresteia in Greece circa 458 B.C. It's blazing hot, and the actor Pallas thinks it's cruel and unusual to have to wear a mask in such weather while Dimitris says that women should not be allowed backstage. Then with the loud boom of a cannon, we are whisked forward in time to Shakespeare's England where a band of merry Burbages are in rehearsal for The Tempest. Just as in Greek times, women aren't allowed onstage, but Lydia Burbage has memorized Hamlet and is determined to tread the boards.
Shift now to backstage at the Royal Theatre of Versailles in 1789, where a playwright named Christophe Durant is peeved because the Emperor has been sleeping and eating during his show and has no idea what good theater is. Another shift and we're in Moscow, 1896, at the Art Theatre, where the first reading of Chekhov's The Seagull is taking place. The actors are ecstatic to be performing this play, which is so new and original. But how will it be received by an audience who expects the plots of Shakespeare and Molière and other "crowd pleasers"? Slide forward in time once more, and we're at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1956 Miami, where Waiting for Godot has just had a devastating opening night and the actors discuss how great works are rarely appreciated in their own times. (Hint, hint.) One final leap brings us into the present day, where a financially distressed theatrical company must make difficult decisions about its upcoming season in order to avoid closing its doors altogether.
If all that seems relatively straightforward (or not), know that characters also now and then slip from one era to the next and interact with thespians from other time periods. Fortunately, The Pearl's actors (the seventh troupe in the play?) — Rachel Botchan, Donna Lynne Champlin, Dominic Cuskern, Sean McNall, Carol Schultz, and Micah Stock — are marvelous at transforming from character to character. All of this switching, not to mention the frequent intersections of timelines, prevents the audience from having the faintest clue where the play is going. Yet one often has the feeling that it is progressing toward something satisfying.
And it does, believe it or not, end in a way that seems almost inevitable, with the most satisfying payoff taking place not inside the theater, but outside it, when fellow theatergoers talk about the production. The play itself raises all sorts of questions about the trials of the acting profession, the despair of playwriting, the challenges of venue management, and even the insanity of anyone who would choose the theater as a profession. While we go spinning through the ages with these actors, these and other issues weave in and out of the stories, and we recognize how the people who inhabit the theater world haven't changed all that much over time, only the characters and settings have.
So despite the time it takes to figure out the method behind McNally's madness, And Away We Go delivers the goods in the end. Its meta-theatrical aspect also gives it an academic quality that literature and theater teachers may find attractive. It's not hard to imagine the play being studied alongside Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. Is it that good? If history is any guide, time will tell.