Reality Is an Activity is not a typical theatrical production. It’s short on plot and character development. But it’s a symphony of humorous word play and a love song to poetry, with a bit of sketch comedy dressing. This world premier production by Theater Oobleck is written by Barrie Cole. If you love language and poetry, this will be 90 minutes of bliss. If you prefer a play with a strong plot and complex characters, Reality Is an Activity may not be to your taste.
Two women—Helen (Diana Slickman) and Miranda (Vicki Walden)—are engaged in a serious project to repair the world through books and perhaps technology of some sort. Poetry is a major element, especially the work of Wallace Stevens. When a representative of the foundation that funds them arrives to audit their work, creative chaos ensues. The foundation rep, Fred Howard (Colm O’Reilly) seems to think it is chaos. At first anyway.
Miranda assures Mr. Howard(s) (whose name acquires an ‘s’ to match the last names of poets Stevens and William Carlos Williams) that they have “paid all of our syntaxes. We certainly have. We’ve sent in quite a pile of permission slips too. Do you need more permission slips? We have more. They tend to fly around like birds.” Permission slips (sometimes quoted as persimmons) are the currency of the project and at one point, Mr. Howard(s) draws a pile of them that have been sent to the foundation and reads them one by one. That includes a run-on sentence, written on a roll of adding machine paper. It really does run on.
Poetry takes a leading role and lines from Stevens and Williams and other poets pop up throughout. So does delightful word play like evaluating the words “poetry” and “policeman” and considering their respective parts. Lice are involved.
The two women are roll mates and role mates, and they add other meanings of roll and role. Rolling down the hill, which they do to get from their hut to the theater and offstage in scene 4. Slicing and eating rolls. And of course, playing roles. Mr. Howard(s) is referred to as The Emperor of Ice Cream more than once. Punctuation is spoken throughout one section. Period.
There’s a madcap example of “being on the same page,” wherein both Helen and Miranda read aloud simultaneously from page 116 of two different books. (One is Faulkner’s The Hamletand the other is E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, but it really doesn’t matter.) Mr. Howard(s) shouts, “That’s not what being on the same page means!” to their astonishment.
I could go on—and on and on—with more examples, but I won’t spoil the play for you.
The three actors are each excellent in their own way. Animated or deadpan as needed, but committed to their characters. Paul Leisen’s set design includes a dining table with a missing center leaf that plays an important role. Scott Ramsayer’s sound design is an essential part of the play and its interludes. Martha Bayne handles lighting. And, in Oobleck’s manner, no one directs.
The play’s title comes from a Stevens poem titled “Reality Is an Activity of the Most August Imagination” from Late Poems.
Barrie Cole is a Chicago writer and performer who has written numerous plays, essays, short stories and monologues. Her writing is often language-based. Ian Belknap, founder of the Write Club, said of Cole: She has “this wizardly, alchemical capacity to break language into its constituent parts and wring its juices into a bucket of her own devising and to stir the contents of that bucket with a vigor and intensity that you feel like might leave your poor brain in a smoking husk were you to attempt it.”
Reality Is an Activity by Theater Oobleck continues through June 3 at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets are $25, “more if you’ve got it, less if you’re broke.” Performances are Thursday-Sunday, except no performance on Sunday, May 27.