At its best, devised theater can point towards the problematic or expected aspects of theater that are easy to overlook or are assumed foundational. Devised theater often breaks hierarchical rules – instead of the playwright and the director being above the actors, the actors themselves help craft the story they want to tell. what if, the newest creation of The Moving Company, does a good job of describing the difference between a Play and Theater – while all Plays are Theater, not all Theater is simply Plays.
The personal nature of this type of creation can fall prey to feeling very insular; the inside jokes, references, even the logic of the production can start to feel like a Secret Language known only to the performers. While this is often meaningful to the performers, as an audience member you can feel like an interloper—this isn’t for you. When what if succeeds, it invites the audience in using humor, physicality, and genuine emotion; when it fails, it relies too heavily on inscrutable choices and character studies that do not feel authentic.
Divided neatly into two acts, what if asks us about our impending environmental catastrophes, starting with where we are and where we are going. The first part stars Steven Epp, the co-Artistic Director of The Moving Company. Epp slips seamlessly between himself, the narrator, a Jewish/Syrian/former professor/refugee now-janitor at Notre Dame, and an 11-year-old girl who floats away on the roof of her home during the Nebraska floods. Epp invites the audience to imagine “what if,” and then goes on to deftly weave a story between these two very different people. Epp’s ability to “cut” between these two stories is a consistent highlight of the evening, displaying masterful storytelling and an ability to creative vivid pictures in the minds of the audience with minimal props/set.
Epps interrogates the foundation of empathy--the question what does it feel like to someone else?, expands to what does it feel like to be someone else? Unfortunately for this production, it feels inadequate to simply muse about what it feels like to be either of these characters. It is as if this production missed a step; instead of learning more about either of these characters, Epp takes their images as a starting point, spinning his own (intriguing) web, seemingly without regard for the real people behind his imaginings; this feels particularly egregious because the show is about understanding our fellows. Both characters are too wholly Epp’s creation to foster this understanding. The 11-year old describes herself as a Scottish Warrior in her plaid skirt, quotes Greta Thunberg at length, and pokes fun at her father’s conservative environmental and religious beliefs; the characterization feels too on-the-nose to be pure childish precociousness. The anthropology professor experiences so much he feels like Forrest Gump; instead of a human, we get stand-in punching bag for historical wrongs. Also, if I am honest, having an incredibly educated adult call communion wafers “Jesus cookies” feels insulting to everyone; it is these types of jokes and excessive self-insert that should have been cut in the final production out of respect for the stories and people they are claiming to portray.
In the second part, Sarah Agnew and Nathan Keepers exude a manic collaborative energy reminiscent of children at a trampoline park or, perhaps, electrons in an atom. Together they tell the story of anthropology (who we are and how we came to be who we are). They look back at cavemen (how we owned our own fires/caves) and move swiftly into the demarcated barriers of countries. They show humans prodding and poking at borders (much like siblings squabbling in the backseat of a minivan); bouncy and juvenile, they gush with a physical boisterousness. The second part of the second half is the story of God (in a great twist, God is played by both actors and becomes an ambivalent They). God creates a wonderful resort (the world) and leaves humans to take care of it while They nap. Of course, the audience already knows this punchline: when God awakens, no one has taken care of the resort and, instead of trying to clean up our mess, humans simply point figures at each other and God.
Devised theater can often feel like the audience came in at the end of an inside joke – an inside joke that has been pushed too far. No longer funny, it almost feels like the performance/language points at the husk of what was meaningful. what if’s larger themes about environmentalism strike a chord, but it feels like a stronger, less indulgent edit would have helped this production. With strong performances all around, I can’t help but wish the material had matched the performances.