The Pillow Book – Not All Who Wander
A REVIEW BY RIVER STYX
The Pillow Book tucks in new Baltimore DIY company Cohesion Theatre’s inaugural season with enough intimacy, heartbreak and hopefulness to impregnate you with longing for the birth of its second season (which opens with new play The History of American Pornography).
Speaking of babies and pregnancy and relationships. Those are major themes in Baltimore native playwright Anna Moench’s Book which is a collection of flashbacks and monologues focused on three — and then some — relationships of the same characters in parallel realities. Whaaaa? Don’t worry, it’s not as intimidating or polarizing as it sounds, and you don’t have to get off on Yoko Ono performance art to have a meaningful experience during this 75-minute, three-person play.
The three main relationships Moench slices into vignettes in various times and places are:
1. A recently married, totally in love childless-but-thinking-about-it couple. John is an office worker who has days where all he does at work is stare at his computer. Deb is a junior associate at a law firm who knows she’s paid less than her male coworkers and is completely unmaternal. When the devoted and more patient than any man I have ever known or heard of John eases Deb into the idea of having a baby with a puppy, Deb flips her shit, then acquiesces if she can name him Eduardo. Deb will never clean up Eduardo’s shit, which he does a lot. She is adamant about not wanting to be pregnant.
2. An older, married childless-by-choice couple. John is an office worker who has days where all he does at work is stare at his computer, but he does it bitterly, not happily like recently married John in the other relationship. Deb now is a red-headed 30-something Emma Stone and doctor who goes by Deborah. She’s competent and sensitive. John is resentful. They get bedbugs in one scene, and are headed for divorce in the others.
3. Strangers in the Serengeti. Red-haired Deborah is a 20-something finding herself by leading safari tours in the Serengeti. She’s capable and smart. John is a solo traveler from Connecticut who accidentally maces Deborah in the face. This story is the most linear and time contained of any in The Pillow Book.
There are other relationships and a smattering of stream-of-conscientious and straight-out monologues, too. Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff here, and it’s all open to interpretation. One of my dates to the opening night (yes, more than one date – baller!) said he didn’t get a lot of it, but thought it was cool. I thought I got it, but when I talked to show producer and Cohesion co-founder Brad Norris after the show, he enthusiastically suggested even more possibilities for each scene. The Pillow Book is like The Matrix-personal journal reloaded. A lot of theories. But, its core is intimacy, not thought control or body pods or whatever (notice how much I know about The Matrix…).
I’m still going with parallel realities of the same dude with two women named Deb(orah).
Deb and Deborah are very different. Deb is half of the young and in-love married couple talking about having a baby. Played capably by Michele Massa, Deb is reserved and less emotive. She is missing the maternal instinct her husband longs for her to have.
The competent and smart Deborah of the other two relationships is played by Rebecca Ellis, who is vulnerable, strong, devastated and mesmerizing as a doctor who has lost her first patient and is about to lose her husband and then as a safari guide. Her scenes with John – played by Joseph Coracle – are so genuine and intimate and heartbreaking you’ll have to distract yourself with posting production pics to Twitter to keep yourself from crying (which you’re encouraged to do — not cry, take photos during the show and hashtag ’em up).
Joseph Coracle. Coincidence that his surname has Oracle in it? Maybe. But there is not one second of badness in his performance, which is fucking great. He reaches his hands into each of his characters until he’s grabbing their essence. As Deb’s completely devoted husband, doctor Deborah’s resentful partner, jaded airport security worker, naïve Connecticut-born solo tourist in Africa, and devastated young father, Coracle is captivating. If I see Joseph Coracle’s name on a cast list, I will see that show. I remember him from his brief appearance as a gardener in Chesapeake Shakespeare’s Richard II, which was one of two major standouts of that stellar production. The other was Jonas David Gray (Richard II), who makes his directorial debut with The Pillow Book.
Gray is one of the best actors in Baltimore – he killed it (and was then killed) as the title kings in Richard II and Edward II, the latter of which was the production that inspired the creation of Cohesion Theatre Company. (Disclosure: I performed with Jonas in Edward II.) His incredible sensitivity is all over The Pillow Book. Gray is not the quiet type to let you figure out something on your own. He fucking emotes, shares and thinks deeply about stories, characters, words and meanings. This directorial care is evident in The Pillow Book.
The set by Cohesion co-founder Alicia Stanley is thoughtful, too – walls of white bedsheets reinforce the sense of intimacy in the play, and although unnecessary, on the opposite side of those sheets are staged rooms that are not visible during the performance. Resident Cohesion lighting designer Lana Riggins’ projections of an African night sky, hospital room, bedbugs and other scenes add visual interest to the sparse production.
Cohesion doesn’t do anything half-assed. Even aspects of its other productions that seemed half-assed – like the set of 13 Dead Husbands – were indeed full-assed solutions to working within the limitations of time, talent, resources and a change of venue.
Care taking is a theme throughout Cohesion’s final production of its season – caring for a dog, a child, a partner, yourself. Cohesion takes great care with its productions, and the Baltimore DIY theater scene is lucky to have it join the family.
Bottom line: Although non-linear, The Pillow Book packs enough intimacy, vulnerability and thoughtfulness to make you want to have a baby. What? I didn’t mean that. I meant, like every other Cohesion Theatre production this season, The Pillow Book is thoughtful and fucking good (and will make you at least think about having a baby).
Running at The Church on The Square through July 12th.
Contact Styx at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Styx Disclaimer: As a newbie to the area, I am not an expert on Baltimore theater, but I have strong opinions about artistic endeavors – especially community theater productions. Generally, I’m a big fan of people, and I know some of the artists I review. I root for everyone and am thrilled when people create thoughtful, compelling productions. I also think if you’re going to do anything, you should do your best, so I’m honest when something doesn’t work. I think it’s awesome you spend your free time creating performance art, and I offer my thoughtful commentary in honor of that dedication.