BWW Review: Experimental STILL LIFE WITH ROCKET at Theater Alliance

At its core, Mollye Maxner's "Still Life with Rocket" is one of those complex, emotional theatrical dramas that grow out of an uneasy reunion, where cracks in the family unit become increasingly and tragically clear. After its secrets are revealed, there's a climax from which no one can return.

Like her "Occupied Territories," which she also produced for Theater Alliance, Maxner's new commission, two years in the making, has much more than that going for it.

Indeed, it begins with a kind of Anacostia Playhouse art installation that serves to allow the audience's close ups set inspection. Groups of six to eight wander in ten minute intervals through a labyrinth representing the Fisk home - the disheveled kitchen with a sink overflowing with dirty dishes, pizza boxes strewn on the floor, and in the corner an elderly woman muttering as she watches VCR tapes of old boxing matches.

That Annie Houston is even sitting there, almost like a Duane Hanson sculpture, is a bit of a surprise. Then there's a man sitting in a hallway looking at old photos; a shack where a guy in a boxer's regalia also has a set on watching old matches. There are a lot of cross referenced information about a space probe that fascinates the teenager in the house and indeed, he's seen in the final, big central room where the rest of the action takes place, putting together another collage of the Voyager facts.

In the center of the black box space, two women undergo a long dance based on boxing, nicely choreographed by Maxner and danced by Devinne Cook and Kate McFalls. The teen (played by Justin Weaks) begins to announce the match and add some of his own rhymes.

Only after a time do the other grown children of the elderly woman, Jared Shamberger and Teresa Spencer, begin to interact with their own pile of recriminations. It's been up to the teen, Nathan, to be the caretaker of the old woman who has become gnarled in dementia. She can't quite identify the other strangers in her backyard.

Eventually, the prodigal son Caleb (Ben Gunderson) returns. He's some kind of special black sheep - hated for apparently stealing some money to feed an addiction but pledges now that he's all clean to his wary siblings.

There is some yelling and blame and Caleb also wants to get out the gloves and box somebody as well. Amid the usual stagecraft for these interactions, scenes that seem preserved from what must have been some wild physical rehearsals and exercises. It runs the gamut from an effective and percussive throwing of the gloves against the walls in frustration to literally getting naked and running around. As grown siblings will do.

Some of this is quite unnecessary (especially since the first to disrobe is the elderly woman). But in another scene, what starts as the act of moving tables for a new scene becomes a riveting segment of swirling furniture around in frustration. Such is the result of wide open experimentation - some things hit the mark quite by accident while others fall quite short.

It helps that it's a very strong cast from top to bottom, who might have already gone through a lot together before the first audience was ever led through the maze. Especially good is Gunderson as the intense Caleb, and Spencer as the tough foster sister. Weaks and Shamberger are very good as well. And Houston does the kind of things you can't ask many cast members to do.

The tough issues of age and memory and care of the elderly are there, as are the loads of regret for past actions.

Maxner, who wrote and directed, returns to boxing as a metaphor and as a spark for movement; its geometry comparable to the trajectories in the Nathan's Voyager calculations.

One has to wonder how much of this would hold up in a conventional theater, minus the arty haunted house entrance and half as much dance and boxing. But given what we have, "Still Life with Rocket" seems to bravely punch its way into its own uncharted theatrical space with whatever tools are at hand.

Running time: Two hours, no intermission. Audience enters in 10 minute intervals beginning up to 40 minutes before the listed show times.

Photo credit: Annie Houston, Justin Weaks, Teresa Spencer in "Still Life with Rocket." Photo by C. Stanley Photography

"Still Life with Rocket" by Theater Alliance continues through July 2 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE, Washington. Tickets at 202-241-2539 or online.

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From This Author Roger Catlin

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