BWW Reviews: DISSOCIA Will Broaden Your Horizons
The Wonderful World of Dissocia, which is wonderful indeed, is lovingly crafted by Theater Alliance, who used to be housed at the H Street Playhouse in the Trinidad neighborhood, back when it was easier to find boarded up windows than a decent place to sit down and eat on H Street. I saw how that playhouse, and Theater Alliance, breathed new life into that neighborhood by making it a destination to see innovative local theater. But their success came at a price.
As audiences and critics flocked to their shows, concert locations and other art venues sprang up. Restaurants followed them, and bars followed the restaurants. These businesses raised property values when they gobbled up real estate that was sometimes abandoned, sometimes not. The rising values forced H Street Playhouse into closing, leaving Theater Alliance homeless. Their former digs have been totally gutted to make way for, I swear to Dionysus, a gym franchise. Gentrification is all fun and games until someone loses a theater. Or a home.
But Theater Alliance has bounced back in a big way, and now H Street Playhouse has reopened as the Anacostia Playhouse, just east of the river. Now, stay with me here. Breathe. Do not click away. You may have just had a bunch preconceived notions about "Anacostia" and "east of the river" pop into your head. I want you to forget them. I was once like you may be now, skeptical of an evening's entertainment whose route took me through Anacostia, much less ended there. Anacostia Playhouse has changed my mind.
Tucked in the northwest corner of Anacostia (an easy drive over the 11th Street bridge with plenty of parking or a reasonable 5 blocks from the Anacostia Metro Station), this newly renovated space is more functional and more beautiful than their last place, the perfect mix of new design and old architecture. The neighborhood is cauldron of industrial and commercial spaces, but, unlike the old days of H Street, it is easy to find a place to sit down and eat. I went to the Big Chair Coffee and Grill, named after, well, what was once considered the world's largest chair, situated across the street. Good coffee and a good loaded baked potato with barbeque primed my senses for the extravagant kaleidoscope of experience that is The Wonderful World of Dissocia.
Theater Alliance tickled my senses even before I entered the performance space. It happened first in the lobby, where evidently show-paralleling paintings give an inkling of the warped world of the protagonist, Lisa (played with equal parts relatable passion and quirky charm by Karina Hilleard). Then sight is further stimulated by raw street art (what some might call "graffiti" and others might call "tag") in the entrance passageway to the theater. I was impressed, but not because the art was good, though it was. The impressive part was that the art was pre-existing and was purposefully kept on the walls. Anacostia Playhouse could have literally whitewashed the history of that space away. But they chose to make that art each audience's introduction to each performance that they hold there, showing their desire to integrate with their community, and, for The Wonderful World of Dissocia, giving the audience a clue into the powerfully sensuous play they are about to experience.
The encompassing sensuousness of the art form is one of the best reasons for seeing theater. In a movie, you can't feel the heat of the lights. At the symphony, the musicians don't lock eyes with you. Paintings don't have pheromones that enliven you with energy. Theater is what the Germans would call a "Gesamtkunstwerk," or a form of art that invigorates all of the senses. Dissocia embodies this multi-sensory principle, not only creating a simultaneously blissful, devastating, and moving world, but also cleverly incorporating the senses into the excellent pacing and plot of the show.
The biggest sensory explosion came when I entered the black box. The entire playing space is covered in reddish rubber mulch, full of smell, made of tires and kickballs torn asunder. The room is suffused, but not overwhelmingly, with the scent of rubber. It follows an instant path to childhood via well-worn neural synapses that flood the brain with memories of vulnerability and forgotten innocence. The background of the set plays with this idea as well. Most of the walls are cinder block with occasional canvas texturing, but all of the background is covered in fulgent yellows, greens, and blues, with a gorgeous half-landscape, half-abstract feel, making this an imaginative atmosphere.
But this encompassing and creative set is just a colorful canvas for the imaginings of the protagonist, Lisa. Set designer Collin Ranney has done a superb job of making a fanciful context and then creating within it an oasis of reality, a small apartment demarcated by objects of banal reality: a notebook, an ipod, some trunks. Then, when Lisa picks up her guitar, she does something with it that I have never seen before, and the island of normality breaks apart. She receives a visit from a Swiss watchmaker whose diagnosis (after an autopsy of her broken timepiece) is that she has lost an hour.
Usually, losing an hour is no big deal; we've all experienced it, especially if you're the kind of person that watches reality television. But Lisa's lost hour is different. Losing that hour has caused her life to spin out of control, leaving her mentally and emotionally disconnected from the rest of the world. She is torn apart like the rubber she stands on. She devotes the first act to retrieving that control by searching for her hour in the world of Dissocia, a land that won't appear on any map. Very much like the rabbit in a suit with a pocket-watch from Alice in Wonderland (which is clearly the cultural touchstone that Anthony Nielson's play relies on), Lisa goes down into a world of adventure and fantasy that bounces her from one part of Dissocia to another.
I won't delve too deeply into the different parts of Dissocia and the people that she meets there. Much of the fun of this production is the surprise of the new rules she must follow and the odd people that she meets. But, suffice it to say that polar bears will sing, cars will fly, and hot dogs will be thrown. If you enjoy absurdity, if you enjoy twisted fairy tales, if you enjoy fun, you will enjoy this production.
That is not to say that there isn't depth here. The cast of this production is huge for a show that is so focused on its protagonist, and each member of the cast brings their own well-developed sense of absurdity (in both light and dark forms) to this play. Some of the ensemble stands out: Lisa Hodsoll walks the balance beam between likeable and hateable that defines interesting character work, Adi Stein finds some good beats to show his versatility, and new-to-DC Ben Chang has a nice debut showing off his ability to channel pure comfort even in the context of menace that is a constant theme of this well-knit ensemble.
The show does have a menacing context, as happens with many shows that derive their theme from mental illness. The extraordinary design of this show incorporates that menace while keeping the tone varied and constantly moving. Sound designers Christopher Baine and Matthew M. Nielson play with location, and always caught me off-guard with new directions of sound and excellent layering, especially when reality bleeds into Dissocia. They are restrained when it is appropriate, showing a superb understanding of how their sound interacts with the plot in such a sensuous show. In this kind of play, where the set feels very static, sound and light have a responsibility to keep driving the action in an integrated way. Both designs have come together in The Wonderful World of Dissocia to make the full package. Lighting designer John Burkland has pulled out all the stops, lighting walls, actors, floor, and air exceptionally, creating new and different looks for every location in the play.
All these elements, the music, the sound, the strong lights, the energetic actors, the smells, the laughter, all these things left me in a state of narcohypnia after the first act was finished. The lights outside didn't seem as bright as before. Sounds were far away. I kept wanting to go back to Dissocia, to get more story, to find new people as Lisa discovered them. I was lost in my own dissocia for the 15 minutes of intermission.
And on my return for the second act, something big had changed, yet it was something that fit perfectly with the first act and played with all of the themes that were developed there. I won't spoil it, but the second act of this play is an experience you want to have, a strong foil to the first act. This balance proves that the directors (Colin Hovde and Nathaniel Mendez) understand the music of the structure of this play. They orchestrate each note so that it fits in a greater movement, each movement so it fits in a greater structure. Even if the rhythm is occasionally bumpy, their direction means that the play always returns to sync.
When the show was finished and the last note had been played, The Wonderful World of Dissocia had combed over my spirit with sensation and nonsense, leaving me with plenty to mull over. Maybe I was in a dissociative state, but when I crossed the river again, away from this gem in Anacostia, the journey didn't feel as far as it did before. Just like Dissocia had broadened my senses, Theater Alliance has taken me to places that I never expected to go, opening up a wonderful world that I didn't know existed. Don't miss this chance to have your horizons broadened.
The Wonderful World of Dissocia runs about 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.
The Anacostia Playhouse is located at 2020 Shannon Place SE in DC. Dissocia runs until June 28th, Thursday through Sunday, with matinees at 2pm and evening shows at 8pm. Tickets are $30, general admission, with student and senior tickets available for $20. Tickets are available at https://theateralliance.secure.force.com/ticket
PHOTO of Karina Hilleard courtesy of C. Stanley Photography