April 9, 2019
Did you know that the Flight Deck is the only black box theater in Oakland? I didn’t until I went to the opening of Ragged Wing Ensemble’s play “Time Sensitive” on Saturday night. That seems alarming to me, though I suppose it’s not really a surprise, given the state of Bay Area real estate. Ragged Wing opened the venue in 2014, and I hope their foothold in Oakland seeds other such spaces that house other smart, scrappy theater companies.
While I can’t say that “Time Sensitive” struck me as a fully realized work of theater, I have to give props to Ragged Wing. They take a collaborative approach in creating new work, and as a group they manifest very strong energy — particularly as physical players. “Time Sensitive” is most gripping when the company is flocking and chanting. Early in the play, the chants of “work, fuck, work, eat, work, shit, eat, shit” are funny and cathartic for anyone who’s ever been caught in the rat race. The gestures of grabbing and running and getting, and the intensity required to achieve even the smallest victory in the city, such as procuring a coffee, are well played. But the play’s mostly parallel storylines (there is some overlap at the end) don’t earn their moments of melodrama, and I felt there were a number of missed opportunities in terms of plot (though a gun that shows up in act one does eventually go off).
My bigger beef with the play is not so much the lack of dramatic tension and character development, but with the way that the city itself is presented as an evil. I don’t think that writer/director Amy Sass intended to do that necessarily. Reading her note in the program afterward, I learned that her starting point was a meditation on time and the stressful URGENCY we have come to take for granted. Such stress is something that audiences can clearly relate to, and the city as the source of that unhealthy pace is also a familiar trope. Yet I think Sass and Ragged Wing can work more against the obviously relatable. The play posits the city as infinite, and the audience shrugs down into a familiar dystopic space, our relationship to our changing world that Bill Mckibben described as hitting the snooze button as the climate change alarm goes off. There is no possibility for an elsewhere except the fabled landscape of ice, which is not connected effectively to the characters in the city, and is also not mined for an environmental storyline. The characters can’t go to the ice place, though at a certain point they are stuck in a kind of frozen moment, which seems a forced attempt to bind the pieces of the story together.
In one scene, Nick (Emmy Pierce) scans the horizon from the top of a skyscraper and can’t find the city’s edge. Here is the slump and shrug we can all relate to, the loss of a bucolic possibility. Sass taps something that many of us feel, a sense of anxiety about environmental devastation that can be overwhelming. But the play doesn’t offer a different possibility for the city, it is just this greedy, sprawling inexorable thing that even Bill (Alex Trono) who owns the highest building can’t escape (at least in life). Cities and people are complex, and I would like to have seen some greater complexity in the portrayal of both the place and characters in this play.
Roach (Alicia Piemme Nelson) and Penny (Rachel Brown) are two down and out characters who try to change their luck via the only mechanisms that seem available to them: violence and superstition, which later do bloom into death and love of sorts. I shouldn’t say that there is no change for the characters, but what change there is feels tacked on and approaches cliché. In another storyline Tilly (Akaina Ghosh) attempts to make her way up through a dismal, soul crushing (though yes, humorously portrayed) work environment. Her clock is biological, the classic women’s cliché. That is what we are all supposed to concern ourselves with, our great creative act. That she would raise a child alone in a horrible world doesn’t give Tilly pause, and the whole prospect of an overly technological society attempting to fast track pregnancy is milked for laughs. And sure, there is humor there, and “relatability” for some. But I’d love to see more story lines for women that don’t lean on that old saw.
I recognize that “Time Sensitive” is taking an absurdist approach, but I think Sass and company have the power to create something truly unusual, a play that digs a little deeper. Maybe they should dredge up all the clichés they can think of, write them down, burn the papers and start fresh. Dispense with Father Time or Gepetto and Pinocchio, dispense with love making us real, with loneliness at the top, with guns as death symbols and babies as life symbols, and create a work of greater subtlety.
A dystopia can unwittingly participate in sustaining a cultural shrug — we’re all fucked, let’s laugh. And while there’s something to that, I think there’s much more to explore. Ragged Wing Ensemble can do it in a city that is so much more than evil, even though it only contains one black box theater. I’m keeping my eye on this company, and you should too.