It’s easy to see why Pig Iron’s Chekhov Lizardbrain, running for a very limited time this weekend in San Francisco at Z Space, was named one of the New York Times’ top theater events of 2008. The performance vivisects a human mind (no small feat) while drawing the audience into a strange and gripping voyage through the “menagerie of human possibility.” Successfully experimenting with style and substance while retaining heart, Lizardbrain leaves one wandering out of the theater feeling transformed.
The play, devised by Robert Quillen Camp and the entire Pig Iron production team, concerns Demitri, an autistic man who meditates on the scant events that led him to live alone in a cold, rural house. Each event is presented from two points of view: Demitri’s actual memory of the event and his attempted theatricalization of the memory, in which characters from his life deliver their lines to the audience in a neo-classical style. The effort to retell his life according to Chekhov’s “five rules of dramatization” — every play should only be four acts, each play should have one central symbol, always articulate who owns the house, all tragedy should happen offstage, and keep it clean, keep it civil — fails. Demitri soon finds himself alone on stage trying to organize and understand his experiences. He eventually concludes that self-examination is precarious at best: “…how thin the wires of the circus…don’t look down.” Through its interrogation of memory, psyche, and performance, Lizardbrain addresses the questions of whether what we remember is actually what happened and whether our subconscious is in control.
Director Dan Rothenberg and his quartet of award-winning actors skillfully navigate the complicated text. Each actor plays a dual role — a real person, and a mental construct of that person — oscillating between a nuanced characterization and stylized representational acting. While Gabriel Bauriedel, Geoff Sobelle, and Dito van Reigersberg give great performances as a trio of brothers/mental constructs, James Sugg steals the show with his hilarious and touching portrayal of Demitri and his alternate personality, Chekhov Lizardbrain. Sugg infuses his deadpan performance with delicate stillness and heavy silence, managing to convey surprising depth and energy. Sometimes he does so by moving nothing but his ring finger, sometimes his claw-like hand absentmindedly climbs the curtain like a frightened cat. His performance bares the raw magnetic power of a live animal onstage.
The set by Anna Kirlay is as stunning as anything else about the play. Tangled white wires festoon a chrome grid from which hangs a field of red and clear bulbs. The stage is a white circle in a sea of black, bordered by stanchions and red velvet rope. Upstage hangs a heavy red curtain, redolent of vaudeville. From behind it the players emerge in Olivera Gajic’s dynamic and deceptively simple costumes: black top hats and coat-tailed jackets over nineteenth century long john’s; both over and under dressed, a satire of formality and class. Lighting designer James Clotfelter keeps the stage foreboding and intimate, dim and spare, sometimes using a single bare bulb. Sound designer Nick Kourtides coyly winks at the audience by establishing mood with the sound of crickets, a technique for immersing the audience that Stanislavsky began while directing Chekhov’s plays.
Chekhov Lizardbrain entertains as its story reflects both the evolution of Western theories of mind (from Aristotle’s Allegory of the Cave to Freud to Paul Maclean’s “Triune Brain Theory”) and the evolution of performance (from Chekhovian realism to Dadaism to neo-meta-theatrics). It is an impressive feat.
Chekhov Lizardbrain runs from June 9 to June 12 at Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco, Calif.