Show: “Psychonaut Librarians”
Company: The New Colony
Venue: The Den Theatre (1333 N Milwaukee Ave, 2nd Floor)
Die Roll: 7
As a lover of books, I find any play that takes on the topic of librarians as fascinating. As the child of a children’s librarian myself, I spent many an hour among the shelves and stacks. Libraries–as well as the books contained therein–can be magical. From my viewpoint, a play that suggests that what is often a figurative bridge to other worlds might also be a literal one launches itself from a solid base. However, not every launch is successful. Many rockets crashed or exploded before we put one into space. And, though “Psychonaut Librarians” by Sean Kelly doesn’t crash and burn, it fails to get into orbit, or touch the stratosphere.
At its core this play is one in want of development. There are perfect moments. Kelly’s script mentions the perfect moments in one’s life when his lead character, Jane (Christine Mayland Perkins), speaks of having just added one to her list of perfect moments. And, in truth, that moment is exactly what it mentions. It is one of the few times when the script, the physicality of the actors, the sound design, and the projections all come together to create a well-defined, believable, and embraceable universe. I wish that more of the show could be like that.
Director Krissy Vanderwarker has put together a cast of varied skill and called upon them to take on widely varied tasks in creating a world that is supernatural and familiar. Perkins is strong enough to carry much of the show on her own. Her acting brings you into the action and tempts you to care about what is going on. Her physical work, along with that of her frequent scene partner, Matt Farabee (in the role of Jane’s love from another world, Dewey), is great. The two of them share a physical vocabulary that creates some beautifully executed moments. Yet, no matter how skillfully
employed a technique is, if the moment doesn’t fit in with the adjacent moments, then it is just out of place. Such is the case with the show’s perfect moment. The rest of its surroundings don’t jive.
Most of the time, when I see David Cerda’s name on a cast list, I assume that the show is going to be a campy comedy. That’s because it is what Cerda is best at (as evidenced by the success of his company Hell in a Handbag Productions). While I’ve seen him do other roles very successfully, I still expect something specific from him as an actor, and this production delivers that. At least, when Cerda is on stage. The show’s camp level goes up when Cerda’s librarian character, Hester, is present. She is melodramatically making her way through a messy divorce, which is why she’s got her daughter with her in the library at the show’s beginning. In that library we meet the Sandman (stiffly rendered by Jack McCabe) and his minions, Dreams (puppets manipulated by various cast members). This villain resonates with all the menace of a mid-January mud puddle. But, as the script informs us, he is pure evil and something to be feared. Oh, and he apparently nibbles away parts of your soul.
Now, you may have noticed that I mention above that “the script informs us”. That’s the greatest problem with this show. In what appears to be an attempt to mimic the narrator’s voice within a story, various actors/characters recite pieces of exposition in the manner of prose from a somewhat poetic novel. I get why this device is employed, for Jane eventually takes control of and tells her own story. Nevertheless, the play suffers from an immense amount of telling-rather-than-showing.
And what it tells us isn’t terribly interesting much of the time. Or, it is just too cluttered and not fleshed out. Hester’s coworkers eventually join Jane on an adventure across the “anyverse” wherein you can be and do anything. And yet the do not choose to be or do much of anything that creates an interesting tale. A few fun bits do pop up. One particularly enjoyable moment is when the characters each have to pop through a tight spot and do so by miraculously shrinking and morphing into puppet form until they are on the other side. This is a much better employment of puppetry arts than the earlier representation of the Dreams.
But, why go on this adventure? Why does it matter? If, as Jane states, this is a love story, why does Jane chase her love all over creation and then some? This especially confuses me because each time she comes near Dewey, he declares his love or his oneness with her, and then tries to kill her, violently. Granted, one can say that it’s because he’s being controlled by the Sandman, but one can also discern a pattern in the behavior. There is room in this tale to show Dewey’s struggle against that control, but it isn’t shown as the play currently exists. There is room for Dewey’s regret, or Jane’s attempt to reconcile his behavior and his words. Those things don’t happen here, either. So, I don’t care if Jane and Dewey ever get together. Why should they? And why should any of the others be convinced that they are perfect for each other and worthy of an epic quest?
Too much is left to the audience’s imaginations to supply, which ironically is the beauty of books. Much of what one can glean from a book is then processed in each reader’s own imagination. But, the trick in writing a good book, perhaps one that gets published as opposed to a few hundred pages that should remain in someone’s bottom drawer, is knowing that you must provide a complete enough picture that the reader doesn’t have to fill in so much that it is overwhelming.
There is enough fun and laughter throughout to make the show a mostly enjoyable evening, even if it is a bit of a let down overall. And that’s in and of itself a bit frustrating. Each time the show leads you to believe it’s getting good, it lapses into disconnected segments surrounding that one perfect moment.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Surreal adventures of librarian’s daughter chasing abusive lover across universe.
DICE RATING: d8 – “Not Bad. Not Great.”