Through Dec. 30 at D Center
When Philip K. Dick first introduces Joe Chip in the third chapter of his sci-fi novel Ubik, he does so with pulpy economy. Chip, the novel's harried protagonist, is a company man, deeply in debt and self-medicating. He gets through work with his weekly supply of stimulants, drinks himself to sleep, and lights up a cigarette first thing in the morning, when reading the daily news and latest gossip about "which TV star is sleeping with whose drug-addicted wife." However, since Ubik is a Dick novel, Joe's job is a little different than most. He's a technician for the New York-based Runciter Company, which is in the business of preventing mind-reading telepaths, future-predicting precogs, and object-moving telekineticists from being used in corporate espionage. Joe's a tester, the guy who grades candidates' abilities to counteract all these powers. It's a rather coy setup for a sci-fi novel, this business of fighting psi operatives with anti-psis-called inertials-but these ideas are what gives the novel a sci-fi patina.
Ubik is set in a futuristic 1992 that feels very late 1960s. (The book was published in 1969.) Joe reads his news and gossip on a homeopape machine, which might as well be a tablet computer that only prints out the news you want to see. And in a bit of inspired cynicism, Dick outfits apartments with interactive appliances that require a fee to operate. Whether it's making a cup of coffee, getting cream from the refrigerator, or opening the front door-all require Joe to deposit a coin into the appliance, which politely demands these fees. It's practically an existence tax, a future where just about any ordinary desire is a transaction.
When Annex Theater's Kate Ewald, Evan Moritz, Tim Paggi, and Trevor Wilhelms started brainstorming about what Ubik might look like as a play, they made an interesting choice for those interactive appliances: They would be played by somebody in a cardboard costume. "That was one of the first ideas we had," says Tim Paggi, who adapted Ubik for the theater company's current production. Paggi is a local actor, ghost story tour guide, and writer who has adapted a few other odd birds for Annex, including Beowulf (on which he also worked with Moritz), Fantastic Planet (René Laloux's 1973 animated film), and the work of screenwriter Jack B. Sowards for Annex's inspired Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan production.
Before he had a finished script, he and his Annex collaborators started improvising how the concept might look and feel, including Joe's apartment and the talking door. "Of course the door's a person," Paggi says. "It's not just a door, it's an actor portraying a door."
That's an aesthetic and pragmatic choice, but it has a transformational effect on Dick's work. Annex Theater may be Baltimore's most no-budget fountain of creative chicanery since Don Dohler shot The Alien Factor in the late 1970s. The company's sets get more use out of cardboard and repurposed wood than a refugee camp. Their plays' costumes often look like augmented thrift-store finds. And while Annex will be moving into the Station North Arts and Entertainment District early next year, using the former New York Fried Chicken carryout at 1 W. North Ave. as its home base, all it really needs is an area it can block out and set chairs around.
So when confronting how to realize a talking machine in Ubik, a person wearing cardboard makes perfect sense. When Joe (Wilhelms, channeling Adrien Brody's shifty unease in The Jacket) uses his coffeemaker, door, or fridge, they're all gamely played by Mackenzie Smith and draw laughs for their home-school construction. But these low-tech dramatic decisions reclaim Dick from the techno-futuristic movie realizations that inadvertently sideline the author's metaphysical queries. Movies such as Blade Runner, Screamers, Total Recall, Minority Report, and even to some extent Next and The Adjustment Bureau, take place in realities of sophisticated technology. Those elements exist in Dick's work, but they act more like wallpaper to the bigger questions of what is real. Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly comes closest to echoing Dick's predilection for the ontological quandaries inherent in the ordinary world, and it's an animated abstraction.
Annex's no-frills approach zeroes in on the novel's shifting time frames and sliding understanding of life, which is what attracted Paggi to the project. "The ideas that Philip K. Dick had [in Ubik] are really, really unpredictable, the idea of a life within death," he says. "It's a story about a man who is trapped in a technocratic society, and he's an everyman getting shoved aside. And, to me, Joe Chip's real enemy is time. Time itself is decaying. It's the great destroyer."
Paggi's script streamlines an already fast-paced novel in two acts that unwind over about 100 minutes. Joe; his boss, Runciter (Rjyan Kidwell in his stage debut); his partner, G.G. Ashwood (Kevin Blackistone, winningly playing an inertial recruiter like a low-level Mamet salesman); new recruit Pat (Cordelia Snow); and inertials Al (Scott Redding) and Wendy (Smith again) get lured to the moon on a job, where a humanoid bomb goes off, killing Runciter. Joe, Pat, G.G., Al, and Wendy return to New York and freeze Runciter in half-life, a stage between life and death where the active brain in a lifeless body can still communicate with the living. En route, though, uncanny things start happening as the characters seemingly go back in time. Wendy and Al meet strange fates, and Joe can't determine if they were killed or if Runciter is still alive. Joe can't even tell if he's the one in half-life. Throughout, scene changes are denoted by absurd television commercials for a product called Ubik.
The entire action-which leaps from Joe's apartment to the Runciter's office to an airfield and hotel and more-is confined to a single rectangular swath of D center, which set designer Josh Van Horn demarcates with subtle changes of background. The simple sets reinforce the story's slippery perceptions. Theatrical space and time are as elusive to Joe as they are to the audience, causing both to wonder about the same questions: Where is Joe Chip now? And how can he know if he's alive or dead?
"Reality is changing around him at all times," Paggi says of Joe Chip's plight. "And he's just trying to piece it together."