Dane, a man in mourning, accepts an online ad for a tour of hell. With the help and direction of a guide, he meets famous ghosts who make him understand important truths about death, dying, and the afterlife.
AN ANSWER FOR THE UNKNOWN LEAPT OUT AT ME because I’m a huge fan of Dante’s Inferno – I’ve collected over a dozen different translations of the thing – though I’d like to emphasize that I’m in no way a purist: I have a great deal of fondness for any number of parodies, homages, and subversions of that classic text.
And let me clear the suspense out of the way by stating up front that I really didn’t enjoy this show. But I’m deeply ambivalent about that fact, and I’d like to talk about why it’s so frustrating for me to have to write that.
There is so freaking much here to admire! There is evident investment of time and effort; this is clearly a labor of both love and ambition, and both of those things can be tragically rare at the Fringe. The video trailer for An Answer for the Unknown was one of the first submitted this year, and one of the standouts. Their program contains a QR code which leads to a series of short films that presage the action of the play (I only had time to watch two before the show started, but still). There’s a live band that emotionally underscores the action at key points. The show features inventive use of shadow puppetry and a strange, skeletal dance, equal parts erotic and disturbing.
It’s a show full of so damn many things to commend!
But ultimately, it falls down in places where it can’t afford to. When I call the acting “weak,” I want to qualify that criticism by pointing out that Tyler Barton Morris’s script makes some pretty huge demands of its actors. These are characters who have been dead for decades, lifetimes, in some cases centuries – and, one in particular, didn’t effectively convey, to my mind, the requisite sense of inhuman age and weariness. I can think of very, very few actors who could – but when the ambition for a piece is otherwise so commendably high, its flaws are magnified.
The structure of both the Inferno and this script is that of a storytelling show -- a series of episodic narratives. For that reason, it’s a problem that the characters here don’t have distinct narrative voices. I imagine if you sampled their text for me, I wouldn’t be able to clearly identify which character was speaking. They all have the same glib, giggly demeanor – though the writer is also fond of having them abruptly leap to emotionally heightened moments, which I suspect was intended to be startling and arresting, but rather caused me to pull back: “Why are they shrieking at me?”
The thing is these aren’t nitpicks or small problems – these narratives represent the core of the show. And, because those central stories didn’t hold me, I found my attention constantly drifting to other nitpicks and small problems: to questions like “Why does Virgil, alone among the damned, retain the privilege of human features?” or “Why does one of the damned souls get a perpetually refilling flask?” These issues don’t really matter, they’re not show-breaking – but the fact that I was fixating on these questions at all belies the fact that the show just didn’t fully engage my attention.
An Answer for the Unknown asks some very big questions, questions important to all of us, and I applaud them for that – a standing-up out-of-my-chair tears-in-my-eyes sort of applause that someone is doing this kind of theater. But when tackling questions on this scale, the answers generated really matter. Which makes this show’s “We manufacture the hells that we think we deserve” conclusion,” well, insultingly facile. It’s a clumsy, vaguely humanist “Your own conscience is GOD” assertion that doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. To use the painfully extreme examples – if true, wouldn’t that mean a self-assured Hitler receives eternal bliss, while a self-doubting Mother Teresa receives eternal torment? Moral certainty is a dark and terrible thing, and we deserve something better -- I mean, like, as a species.
Either the writer is presenting a moral conclusion that hasn’t been thought through – and I find it unlikely that that’s the case, since there is such a great degree of thoughtfulness at almost every other level in this production -- or it's the presentation of that argument that hasn’t been sufficiently thought through. Either way, so much more could have been done with these ideas.
This one’s my longest review in a while, because, yeah, this is definitely the most provocative script I’ve seen in the Fringe so far. And, yes, sitting through this show was an intensely frustrating experience. But it’s equally the case that I’m truly eager to see what Tyler Barton Morris and New Plastic Theatre come up with next.
Related links and performance details:
An Answer for the Unknown has two shows remaining at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis, on Friday, 8/10 at 8:30 pm and Saturday, 8/11 at 4:00 pm. Find more information on the Fringe web page for the show: http://www.fringefestival.org/2012/show/?id=2221
Find reviews, ticket info and more on the Fringe Festival website: www.fringefestival.org/
Check back on the homepage regularly throughout the Fringe Festival, August 2 – 12, for more short reviews on mnartists.org, sent in from our intrepid performance critics on the scene.
About the author: phillip andrew bennett low is a Chinese-American playwright and poet, storyteller and mime, theatre critic, and libertarian activist. His performances have won acclaim at such varied venues as the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, Spirit in the House, FoolFest, and the Chicago, DC, Indianapolis, Iowa, and Kansas City Fringe Festivals -- even as far as Melbourne, Australia. At the 2007 Minnesota Fringe, his hit one-man show Descendant of Dragons was the bestselling show in its venue and awarded a coveted Fringe Encore slot, while his storytelling performances have been nominated for awards by local website FringeFamous for three years running. He is the co-founder of the Rockstar Storytellers (for which he served as Chair for the two years that position existed) and was founder and producer of the touring theatre troupe Maximum Verbosity.
He can be seen at this year's Minnesota Fringe Festival in his own solo show Fear and Trembling.