"Composition" offers mind-bending fun at the Contemporary Theater Company

Photo courtesy Contemporary Theater Company

What if Bertolt Brecht wrote The Matrix? (Or, alternatively, what if Philip K. Dick wrote Six Characters in Search of an Author?) It might look something like playwright Andy Hoover's Composition, which received its world premiere this month at the Contemporary Theater Company (CTC) in South Kingstown. Is it a clever play within a play, or an recursive allegory about a world where the creations have begun to speculate about their creator? However you interpret it, Composition is an absolutely wonderful evening of twisty, thought-provoking theater.

Beginning with a totally bare white stage, Composition weaves together two parallel storylines; in one, a Painter, a Composer, and two movers dress the set for the production of a show. Within the reality of the show that follows, a Professor and his musician niece interact with two black-jumpsuited guards as he struggles with a theory of everything. The points at which these two realities touch turn what is already a satisfying story into a delightfully enigmatic moebius strip.

The cast is uniformly strong. Curt Larson, as the Painter, creates a Colorado mountain backdrop for the evening before our eyes and responds to the other stagehands with just the right note of wry detachment. Amelia Giles brings authentic notes of vulnerability as the Composer. And Stepen Gueb and Christine Cauchon as the Old and Young movers provide both everyday reality and comic relief that helps keep the action grounded. And that grounding is definitely needed as the lights finally come up (lights, by the way, which the uncredited director of the show, Christopher Simpson, spends much of the first act hanging and focusing) to reveal the actors in what you might consider to be the play-within-the-play.

Theater that makes you consciously aware of itself runs a constant risk. Brown literary theorist Robert Scholes remarked in his book Fabulation and Metafiction, "When extended, metafiction must either lapse into a more fundamental mode of fiction or risk losing all fictional interest in oder to maintain its intellectual perspectives." Crawling the edge of this straight razor takes brains and guts, and both Hoover's script and Simpson's direction are up to the task.

As the professor who figures it all out, Shawn Fennell displays a perfect mix of detachment and quirky candor. There is a monologue near the end of Act Two where he ruminates on the future that is spellbinding. Laura Kennedy, as his niece, ably handles a complex role which requires her to evolve from a mute harpist into...well...something more. Jacqueline Barros and Sami Avigdor are the summer and winter guards, sent by the Office of Dystopian Deferral to watch the professor in his remote cabin. Barros has a delightfully arch delivery, and Avigdor makes us believe in his transformation from uniformed goon to human being.

What happens then, well that's the play.

Along the way, there are memorable lines ("Killing time? Time's better off dead."), wonderful details (the identical tattoos on the Movers' necks), a meditation on free throws and "smaller games within larger ones," a highly significant poster that sits, face-down, in the middle of the stage for the entire evening, several Chekhovian guns-on-mantles, obscure facts about curling, and a most delightful deployment of the phrase "Turtles all the way down."

It's a wonderful evening of theatre, and I highly recommend it. And if you do see Composition, ask yourself this question: Is it necessary that the chair squeaks? I mean, in all possible universes at all possible times. That's not a spoiler, but you'll know what it means when you see the show.

Playing at the Contemporary Theater Company Studio Theater in South County Commons, South Kingstown. Evening shows April 15 and 16 at 7 pm, Sunday matinée April 17 at 2 pm. Tickets: $15. Occasional cuss words and some stage violence. More info and tickets on the web site.

Editorial disclaimer: I'm a huge fan of metafiction and Brechtian theater, so this one was right in my kitchen. But our 11-year-old's one word review was "AWESOME!" so at least you have an n of two.