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Review: What You Are Now Ponders the Science of Erasing Memory

Sam Chanse's drama makes its world premiere at Ensemble Studio Theatre.

Pisay Pao stars in Sam Chanse's What You Are Now, directed by Steve Cosson, for the Civilians at Ensemble Studio Theatre.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

We cannot change the past, but what if we could change the way we remember it? This question tantalizingly, menacingly lingers over the stage in Sam Chanse's what you are now (purposefully styled in all lowercase, the humblebrag of naming conventions). This slow-burn, fizzle-out family drama is now making its world premiere in a co-production by the Civilians and Ensemble Studio Theatre.

It's about Pia (Pisay Pao), a neuroscience researcher investigating the mechanics of memory and fear. "If a memory is essentially re-made, re-built each and every time it's recalled," she addresses us like grad students in a lecture, "then it might be possible for this memory to be modified. Overwritten."

Robert Lee Leng and Emma Kikue appear Sam Chanse's What You Are Now, directed by Steve Cosson, for the Civilians at Ensemble Studio Theatre.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

Her colleague/boyfriend Evan (an authentically awkward Curran Connor) suspects she has personal reasons for her academic interest: Her mother, Chantrea (Sonnie Brown), is a survivor of the Cambodian genocide who fled to Lowell, Massachusetts, when she was still pregnant. She never speaks of her life there, or the mysterious scar on the side of her neck. Pia's older brother, Darany (Robert Lee Leng), was born in Cambodia, but has no memories of the country or much of a connection to its culture — Mom made sure of that. But everything begins to change when he starts hanging out with Siobhan (Emma Kikue), a half-Irish, half-Cambodian-American who gives him a CD of 1970s Cambodian rock.

There's a lot going on for 100 minutes of play: With Pia, Chanse seems to be telling the story of a budding mad scientist hubristically seeking to use her knowledge to radically alter humanity (I'm convinced we'll see a lot more of these in response to trust the science evangelism). Through Chantrea, we have the story of a historical atrocity and its lingering psychic consequences. In the testy exchanges between Pia and Siobhan, Chanse reveals the class divisions that exist within immigrant diasporas (and in Evan, the blissful cluelessness of white Americans when it comes to all of this). And (*spoiler*) in Darany, we get the story of a surprise undocumented immigrant, those who we now call "dreamers." On top of that, Chanse delves into the role of psychedelic rock in the Phnom Penh music scene of the 1970s, something that will unfortunately relegate this play to the shadow cast by Lauren Yee's Cambodian Rock Band, a more focused drama with a far more memorable title.

Emma Kikue plays Siobhan, and Pisay Pao plays Pia in What You Are Now at Ensemble Studio Theatre.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

It doesn't help that the galaxy of What You Are Now seems to be centered on the black hole that is Pia. Chanse makes it clear that Pia is a prickly character, suspicious of outsiders and prone to take offense when none is meant. That can make for a compelling protagonist, especially as we get to understand them better. But the task is nearly impossible when the barriers never come down, even for the audience. Add to that a somewhat wooden performance by Pao, and you have a recipe for wandering minds.

Elements of the production draw us back in, especially Brown, whose performance is haunting, hilarious, and surprising until the very end. Leng also delivers a charming portrayal of a fundamentally decent man who has spent a life being swept up by circumstances over which he has little control. His joyful dance to Siobhan's CD is a highlight of the production.

Pisay Pao, Sonnie Brown, and Robert Lee Leng appear in Sam Chanse's What You Are Now, directed by Steve Cosson, for the Civilians at Ensemble Studio Theatre.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

Director Steve Cosson delivers a competent staging, but is unable to inject any adrenaline into a sleepy script. Riw Rakkulchon's all-white set, in which photos have been painted over and the hands on the clock have been removed, works on multiple levels: It tells the story of a totalitarian regime attempting to create "year zero" by obliterating all memory of the past, but also a mother who purposefully obscures a family's history to protect her children. It could also represent Pia's utopian dream of removing painful memories. But this is theater and not installation art. A set can only be expected to do so much. A late transition in which a streak of color is added to the upstage wall à la Pleasantville fails to add any dramatic momentum to this story. Leah Gelpe's sound design is more successful on that front, as Siobhan looks warily toward the window through which the sound of Pia and Darany's rough neighborhood can be heard.

What You Are Now is a play with a lot of potential, but as with Chanse's monologue, "Disturbance Specialist," recently featured in Out of Time, it is mostly squandered. The easiest way to obliterate a memory remains making the event so unremarkable that it never makes the leap to your long-term storage at all.