"The rules have changed."
Those words are almost an incantation throughout "Midlife," Single Carrot's last production of their ninth season, which is devoted to the theme "No-Fear New Work." Indeed, Single Carrot's commitment to taking risks continues in a big way with the world premiere of playwright, neuroscientist, and former Single Carrot ensemble member Ben Hoover's psychological thriller. The story takes place in the mind of a 40-ish-year-old woman named Beck by way of headsets that feed her thoughts, spoken softly by actor Genevieve de Mahy (usually seen behind-the-scenes as Single Carrot's Artistic Director), directly into the audience's ears. Her vision and memories take form on a screen atop a control center manned by a team of homunculi—anthropomorphized beings who manage Beck's unstable mind—that live record video using props cleverly placed and continually manipulated within the station (designed by Daniel Pinha). The camera trembles over old photographs, signifying memories, and focuses on pasta boiling over a hot plate as Beck hides from her fears in her kitchen. The homunculi also lay stretches of fabric across the stage, forming pathways for Beck to tiptoe across till the tracks shift and redirect themselves—the dynamic mapping of her thoughts. The rules have changed.
While the visual manifestations of Beck's inner workings begin to illustrate the ephemerality and abstractness of thought and memory, the continuous internal monologue merely confines the story to a strictly enforced perspective. Though a bold experiment, the problem with literally bringing the audience into the protagonist's mind is that it leaves little, if anything, to the imagination—the audience's imagination, that is. Not only are we limited in our freedom to interpret Beck's words, actions, and character, but we are narrowly directed, through her perspective, to understand the other characters—especially Beck's husband, John (played by Evan Moritz), who we are forced to perceive as uninterested in anything beyond himself. Hoover infuses Beck's monologues with poetic-bordering-on-flowery prose in an attempt to articulate the slipperiness of thought and distinguish it from Beck's conversational voice, but, for the most part, the writing struggles to give voice to subjectivity.
The play opens with the few set pieces draped with white cloth, with the exception of the small classroom desk and chair where Beck sits, arms stretched out and fingers tightly laced, her trembling breath audible through the headsets. She wears a dark, corporate-looking blazer, yet seated at the tiny wooden desk in the center of the space, she is dwarfed to the point of appearing childlike. In her mind, she wonders if other people are like her—a question of identity that both children and adults grapple with, but here carries a kind of naivete (of course other people lie to themselves to get through the day, Beck; come on).
That air of youthfulness grows as she conjures a circus in her mind after coming across a "Boris Lawncare" truck donning the mascot image of a bear, which then becomes a puppeteered figment of her increasingly wild imagination that leads her to the big top. There, the homunculi put on a show for their host. A sequin blazer-clad homunculus played by the impressive acrobat Kaya Vision climbs long silks hanging from the ceiling, wrapping himself into fluid contortions. The rest of the homunculi (played by Moritz, Trevor Wilhelms, Elizabeth Scollan, Kaveh Haerian, and Katie Hileman), meanwhile, clumsily bounce off a trampoline (a motif of Beck's childhood), desperate to please yet filled with visible anxiety over the prospect of flying a short distance through the air. The aerialist soon finds himself in a perilous position and his fellow performers scramble in their attempt to catch him on the trampoline. The scene is a playful visualization of ennui-induced fantasies as well as the rapid and chaotic shifts that take place in a mind stricken with anxiety.
Fresh off the excitement over her internal circus, Beck makes her daily coffee run, where she chats with the affable 20-something barista (also played by Vision) behind the counter. For the first time in her adult life, it seems, Beck begins to open herself to the barista, who, unlike her husband, is as interested in learning about Beck's life as he is sharing parts of his own—a rare kind of friend and a comforting familiar face. She understands the preciousness of their exchanges, and is devastated when she returns only to find a young woman, locked in a constant state of eye-rolling, behind the counter instead. Her fear for the disappearance of her friend seems to be a nervous scapegoat for her anxiety over the most striking change of her unremarkable, gray office life: the sudden loss of her youth.
The significance of the play's title finally takes hold in the character of MA (Claire Schoonover), an older woman who threatens to literally take over Beck's life and body. A scary prospect for sure, though I can't help but think that MA represents everything that Beck wants to be—in control, free from anxiety, a boss ass bitch. Sure, with her sharp features, sinister British accent, and rat-like sidekick (also played by Wilhelms; together, he and Schoonover give the strongest performances), MA has the appearance and attitude of a villain, until we step back and realize that MA—probably, like everything else in the story, a phantom of Beck's mind—embodies the fear that comes with the midlife crisis, the fear of losing touch with one's youthful self.
In the program notes, director Kellie Mecleary writes that with "Midlife," she wanted to "offer a kind of radical intimacy" with Hoover's deeply introverted protagonist. I like this idea—a way to honor the character—but I see a kind of violence in stripping such a character of her protective shell. The distance introverted minds create and maintain between themselves and others can be restricting, but that distance is also at times a necessary and nourishing safe space, one that can be opened up only by tenderness. We just begin to see that kind intimacy take hold through Beck's fleeting friendship with the barista, but the audience isn't granted any more tenderness than he is in their brief encounters. True intimacy (and a good story) is the process of getting to know a person, and the exchanges that it takes to get to that place of understanding—not merely witnessing someone at their most exposed.
"Midlife" runs through June 26 at Single Carrot Theatre. For more information, visit singlecarrot.com.