Ask any writer and they’ll tell you. Somewhere in their home, tucked away in a desk drawer, there’s probably a heap of scribbled notes relating to a ton of half baked story ideas that may never see the light of day. At the conclusion of Annie Baker’s most recent work, The Antipodes, you get the feeling that in order to fill the content of her play about brainstormers telling stories, she must have raided that drawer and incorporated as much of her unfinished work into her script as she could.
The Beatles did it with most of side two of Abbey Road. Most of those songs were half-written themes that had been on the back burner for some time, but when revisited, refreshed, and strung together, somehow Mean Mr. Mustard and the gang worked. Whether Baker has succeeded in the same way with her play will undoubtedly be down to individual tastes. A script about coming up with the perfect plot in a play that itself doesn’t have one will prove to be an audience divider. And I’m sure that’s exactly what Annie Baker is going for.
In Stray Cat Theatre’s opening production for its 2018-19 season, the first thing you’ll notice when taking your seat is that some of the cast are already assembled on the set. They’re talking so quietly and naturally to each other, your first thought is to wonder whether they’d just had a quick tech rehearsal and hadn’t kept check of the time. The second is how the setting is staged. The proscenium arch of Tempe Center for the Arts has been dismantled, making way for that third type of theater that comes somewhere between the arch and a theatre-in-the-round; a thrust stage, but without the stage itself, just a floor-level carpeted platform.
Aaron Sheckler’s effective though colorless scenic design of an unspecified corporate office meeting room thrusts forward. While the majority of the audience still face the forum, some seats are on either side, creating the sense that, depending on where you’re seated, you’re not just watching a performance, you’re in that meeting room acting as silent observers.
Directed by Ron May and performing from now until September 22, The Antipodes runs at approximately 110 minutes without intermission, which is at it should be. Intentionally structured without hooks to keep you wanting more, the play either works without an interruption or it doesn’t work at all. Somewhere in a corporate meeting room of an unspecified company, seven employees and one boss are gathered together. They’re there to brainstorm. They need to come up with the perfect story. And like everything else unspecified in the play, other than their names, we never really know who these people are or what the story they need to formulate is to be used for. It could be for anything. A film, a play, a product, a commercial, a video game, anything. We never know, but it doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. The point is, there are seven people in a meeting room and there’s a lot to talk about.
“This is a sacred room,” their boss, Sandy (David Weiss) tells them once everyone is seated around the lengthy table. “What I want from you guys when you’re here is total commitment.”
The rules are simple. Anything goes. Those seven can say what they want. No boundaries. No self-censorship. It’s all about laying everything on the table and eventually coming up with the big idea. From time to time, Sandy even gives them subjects. “The worst thing that ever happened to you,” he’ll say on one day, then, “Biggest regret,” on another. Then the team proceed to talk. And talk.
Often the stories are funny, as when Danny M1 (Michael Peck) gives an overly detailed description of a sexual encounter culminating with him peeing blood. He’s Danny M1 because there’s another Danny on the team, Danny M2 (Eric Zaklukiewicz). Often the stories are not so funny and not always for the record. When Adam (Michael Thompson) is about to tell of his first sexual encounter, he orders note-taker with the laptop, Brain (William Wyss) “Don’t put me in the notes.”
If anyone comes up with the best personal tale, ironically it’s not a member of the team. Sarah (Shannon Phelps) is the unconventional office assistant who from time to time enters the meeting room and takes the orders for lunch, or passes important though private messages to Sandy, her boss. When Sandy tells the young woman to remain in the room and tell a tale, Phelps steals the moment with a rambling story of her childhood, involving a talking doll, human skulls on sticks that light fire from their eye sockets, and family members turning to ash. She delivers the whole increasingly bizarre monologue in the style of an airhead having a casual conversation with a friend at the mall, and it’s a hoot, but ultimately, like a lot of what’s in the play, to what end?
Film critic Roger Ebert often talked of discussing film with college students who would look for meaning in a movie that the writer never intended, yet somehow finding one. Like those film students, audience members will find individual meanings in Baker’s play about the telling of stories that was never intended, and find one that suits their own agenda. The intentional ambiguous nature of what occurs and what is spoken may frustrate, particularly during those moments where the team are exhausted and remain silent. You could find yourself thinking, So? What next? And while the play is not told in real time – this meeting stretches out for several months – it can often feel like it.
In fact, it’s the passing of time that becomes one of the most creative elements of the play. What looks initially like a form of musical chairs as the team move around the table and assume a different position you soon discover is meant to represent a different day, though, as with most of what you’ll see and here, it’s not immediately obvious. It’s only when Sarah enters wearing a different costume than the one we saw her wearing just moments ago that it suddenly hits you; time has passed. And things become even more creative when, to indicate the passing of several days within seconds, Sarah disrobes garment by garment in the middle of a sentence.
More than the play, which won’t win converts if you’re not already a fan of Baker’s previous work, it’s ultimately May’s staging of the script along with good, high-energy performances from all the cast that impresses the most, including Will Hightower’s nervous Josh who has yet to be paid for his contributions, Louis Farber’s Dave whose explosive outburst renders the team momentarily silent, and Dolores Mendoza’s Eleanor who disturbs the proceedings by sending and receiving messages on her cell when phones are supposed to be off. “It’s my mom,” she tells everyone defensively. “It’s not like fun texting.”
It is said that for any idea to work, in addition to taking off, it needs to land. Annie Baker’s The Antipodes is full of ideas flying all over the place, but most have no landing gear in sight. And maybe that’s what Baker was intending, it’s hard to say. No matter what idea the team delivers, nothing ever lands. Perhaps every story has already been told. After all, isn’t that what Shakespeare scholars have been saying for years?
The Antipodes continues at Tempe Center for the Arts until September 22
Pictures Courtesy of John Groseclose