Outside the Wall

It turns out that after the end of the world, people are a lot like they are right now. Or at least that’s how it appears in The Nature Line, the last chapter in J.C. Lee’s trilogy This World and After. Sleepwalkers Theatre has devoted its entire season to the world premiere triptych, starting with This World Is Good last August and continuing with Into the Clear Blue Sky in April. Now the company finishes up with this play, in a sharp staging by Mina Morita.

Jeff Moran, Roy Landaverde and Jomar Tagatac play-fight while Lissa Keigwin, Janna Kefalas and Joshua Schell look on in The Nature Line. Photo by Clay Robeson.

The connection between plays in Lee’s trilogy is mostly thematic. There aren’t ongoing characters from one to the next. Each play talks about an apocalyptic event, either future or past, but it doesn’t seem to be the same apocalyptic event in one play as it is in another. The Nature Line has by far the largest cast of the three, and it’s also the most finely crafted, at times beautifully eloquent and at others very, very funny.

Charisse Loriaux gives a compelling sense of longing, drive and skittish sensual awakening in the lead role of Aya. She’s obsessed with having a baby, but all her attempts have failed. Babies who survive are apparently very rare, and she’s buried a few already. No one seems to do it the old-fashioned way anymore. She frequents a clinic where they apparently grow babies from womb scrapings and a small private zoo of sperm donors, but she’s had no luck. The clinic offers some priceless moments, run by the slick spokeswoman Narcy (Janna Kefalas), who welcomes future mothers with the chipper thought, “Aren’t you relieved to see that the corporate model can survive the apocalypse?” Lissa Keigwin accompanies her Dora, Narcy’s amusingly eager-to-please and gullible trainee.

The bank of donors is hysterical, four overgrown adolescent guys in a sealed room who do nothing all day but read old comic books and make their donations into containers, with occasional breaks for club dancing and talent shows. Three of them (Jomar Tagatac, Jeff Moran and Roy Landaverde) play at being superheroes and argue about which ones are better while the fourth (Joshua Schell) is “broken,” preferring to make collages and sing tender love songs by Tom Waits and Daniel Johnston that he somehow remembers from before he was born. Of course it’s this earnest, sensitive one who really connects with Aya, and that’s where the trouble starts—or the redemption, depending on how you look at it.

Aya’s friend Arty (Ariane Owens) is a sort of archeologist, sifting through the soil for remnants of our fallen civilization. She’s particularly excited to find videotapes of movies, despite having no way to play them. She simply imagines what they must be like from the descriptions on the boxes. She carries around a love poem patched together from lines found in her scavenging.

“The end of the world was quiet, like bedtime,” Arty says. “I’m told by reliable sources it was fairytale-like in nature.” It seems people just fell asleep in a growing plague. There were too many bodies to bury, so they burned them, and she talks about making snowmen and snow angels in the ash. The fear of infection grew to the point where people stopped touching each other, and “If they said ‘achoo,’ instead of ‘bless you,’ we set them on fire.” There’s a steep wall beyond which lies the dreaded natural world, a detail somewhat reminiscent of Logan’s Run.

There’s a recurring blind character in dirty coveralls, T (Amy Prosser) whose speech is dense with metaphor that she seems to consider in no way metaphorical. (Others refer to her as genderless, but that may be just talk.) T buries words in hopes that they’ll grow and bear fruit. Aya has the same hope for the babies she buries despite the rule that bodies should be burned: “Soil keeps things alive,” she says, hoping that maybe they’ll come back if she plants them like seeds. In the second act she meets Carla Pantoja as an expressive mother figure who makes herself understood despite not speaking the same language as Aya, and Soraya Gillis as the precocious child Delphie.

The characters don’t speak in any kind of futuristic dialects but are plain-spoken and poetically eloquent at the same time. They’re infants of the apocalypse, perhaps the first generation who can’t remember when things were any different but at least heard about it from their elders.

There are ways in which The Nature Line follows a familiar pattern of dystopian visions of the future, in that the characters seek to recapture things familiar to us that are lost to them, in this case including simple human contact. They’re on a voyage of discovery into the past. For all its fanciful premise, the story is in some ways very simple and straightforward. We don’t get to know the characters particularly well—according to the program the guys have names, but if they’re mentioned they’re easily missed—but the journey they take is awfully entertaining, humorous and touching in all the right places.

The Nature Line
Through August 27
Phoenix Theater
414 Mason St., 6th floor
San Francisco, CA

Show #72 of 2011, attended August 5.

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