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Rocket Man

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Aug 26, 2013
Rocket Man

Are there parallel realities beyond our space / time continuum that almost, but not quite, replicate our experiences here on Earth? Or are there, in the vast reaches of space and time, alternate personal and global histories that resemble our own, but with crucial differences?

Maybe the shortest way to ask such questions is simply to wonder whether life, as the old refrain has it, is nothing but a dream. If it is, what about the dreams that lie beyond?

You need a special telescope to peer into the distant reaches of the imagination that playwright Steven Dietz explores here, and Flat Earth Theatre produces just such a viewing experience -- only to flip it around mid-way and let you gaze, wide-eyed, at the same lives as though from the telescope's wrong end.

Dietz, never one to shy away from thoughts exploring the alternatives to things (he is, after all, the playwright behind "The Nina Variations") has some fun with such philosophical unknowables in his 1998 play "Rocket Man," named as aptly for its cosmic musings as for its resonances with the lyrics to the 1972 Elton John / Bernie Taupin classic song of the same title. But this play is, at its core, a tragedy and a compassionate look at the ways in which lives fail to blossom. What disappointed man wouldn't dream of another reality in which career, marriage, and all the other important things hadn't turned out better?

The man carrying such disappointments here is Donny (Robin Gabrielli), who first fetches up on stage with a pedestrian "Walk" signal he's just discovered is not -- and never was -- actually wired in. This, he feels, is a fitting summary for the life he has lived: His efforts futile, his sense of participation in the events of his world nothing more than illusion. Donny's marriage to Rita (Korinne T. Ritchey) has crumbled, and now she's seeing some guy named Kale; meantime, Donny's fraying sense of time has caused him to miss his daughter Trisha's (Mariagrazia LaFauci) surprise birthday party, which is an especially deep sting both to him and to her since she's just turned Sweet Sixteen.

Professionally, his life has been one long holding pattern. Though Donny would have liked to have been a landscape architect, he's settled for a job as a surveyor. Even so, there's a chance for happiness and romantic reinvigoration, since his co-worker Louise (Juliet Bowler) clearly adores him and loves him from not-so-afar: "I grieve for the part of your life you won't share with me," she tells Donny at one point. "And I love the rest."

All this is plain to Donny, and when his concerned friend Buck (Scott Alan) barges into his last refuge -- the attic, which Donny is clearing out to turn into a sort of man cave complete with recliner and repaired skylight -- the list of reasons for optimism Buck ticks off simply bounces off him. Donny's too tired, or too sad, or maybe too stubborn to attempt to reinvent himself. Everything Donny's clearing from the attic is bound for the front lawn, where the contents from the rest of the house are currently being picked over by scavengers, invited and spurred on by a sign Donny's set up in the yard reading, "Here's my life -- make an offer."

Like ghosts from every single holiday (and average day) past, the people in his life turn up in serial order: First Buck, then Rita, and finally Trisha. Straight as an arrow (r a rocket), Donny forges through his conversations with each of them, never wavering from his goal. But that's the thing: What is his goal, exactly?

It seems Donny has a plan to escape the life that's collapsed around him by settling into his armchair, gazing at the stars through his newly restored skylight, and launching himself out of his failed personal universe, and into some other, more satisfactory, edition. Act Two follows him to this alternate reality, where he's a famed landscape architect suffering from his career's answer to writers' block; at least he's still married to Rita, who now owns a cafe. Louise is a pastor -- her religious reflections give the play the appropriate theological counterbalance -- and Buck, in a similar vein, is a little unhinged, believing that he's just concluded a mission aboard an ark to save humanity from a world-washing flood.

The crucial difference between our world and this other reality is that people age backwards; Donny doesn't miss Trisha's sweet sixteen bash this time, but it means something completely different (and provides a whole new, unexpected lens through which to view life -- Donny's as well as one's own).

This is pretty strange stuff, fringey in its oddness and yet moving in the universality and depth of its dramatic probe into a weary soul. Lindsay Eagle directs with a carefully modulated balance between weightless flights of fancy and potent specificity that lend the material emotional gravity; especially effective is the sound design by Christopher Larson, which includes some deep blue jazz at the right moments. Chris Bocchiaro's lighting design gives us the light of a waning day, the silver radiance of a moon streaming in, and a galaxy of stars; Debra Reich's scenic design allows us to peer into Donny's attic with X-ray eyes much as the script allows us an intimate glimpse into his soul.

All of the actors do marvelous work playing characters in two modes, with Gabrielli anchoring the piece and setting the tone. LaFauci plays Trisha with unerring teen-girl volatility in the first half and follows up in Act Two with the wisdom of a life already lived. Bowler has a wonderful comic talent (she was a burning bright spot in "Fishnet-Networks.Net" at Club Cafe a couple of years ago), and here she shows herself to be a generous dramatic actress as well. Ritchey plays Rita with sadness and restraint in Act One, then sheds all that for some feisty brio in Act Two. And Alan gives Buck the cheery buoyancy of a natural optimist in his first incarnation, and then translates that youthful energy into late-blooming juvenile imagination bordering in senile dementia for his character's alternate version.

Though this reviewer only saw the play toward the very end of its run and was unable to get the review published before the play concluded on Aug. 24, this production, and its cast and crew, deserve props for the chops they brought to the stage. Dietz covers light years in this work, and Flat Earth Theatre, in contrast to their name, blasted off, left these terrestrial confines, and went the whole distance.

"Rocket Man" played Aug. 16 - 24 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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