A half-dressed man lying flat on the stage seems surprised when the stage lights suddenly come up and he turns to see hundreds of audience eyes looking at him. “Is it now? I thought I had more time,” he says with some regret, anxiety, but also excitement of what is to come next. An immediate black-out and a few moments later, he appears now in pajama bottoms, slippers, and jacket in a wheelchair, saying matter-of-factly, “This was supposed to be something else, but you know.”
From the opening moments of Will Eno’s newest play, Wakey, Wakey – now in production at American Conservatory Theater – ‘Time’ plays a major role, starring alongside the lone man on stage who is identified only as “Guy.” ‘Time’ is a character with whom it is assumed we all are already familiar but one that is also presented as illusive and mysterious. There is a pervasive sense during the sixty-minute play – and I use the term ‘play’ loosely to describe what feels spontaneous and unscripted and with no sense of plot – that time is running out. At the same time, Guy continuously lures us to be willing to suspend our sense of time and just relax, reflect, and renew rather than being too anxious about the tick-tock of each passing minute.
As Guy, two-time Emmy-Award-winning Tony Hale (for his role as Gary Walsh in Veep) quickly establishes a rapport with us as audience that feels intimate and almost one-on-one. Under the astute, warm-hearted direction of Anne Kauffman, his Guy appears to wander as if lost, searching randomly from subject to subject where to go next and admitting, “I’m sorry; I’m not exactly sure what to say here.” Yet he holds our rapt attention as he searches through a stack of note cards, reading a line here and there that makes little sense, noting that what is written on one, for example, is “a word from a psychiatrist who is actually an exterminator.” Such non sequiturs pepper themselves throughout his one-sided conversation with us as do his out-of-the-blue suggestions or short videos that seem to be part of a plan for the evening that he can no longer recall or follow as he had hoped.
Yet it is clear Guy has a sense of hopeful purpose for our time together – “We’re here to learn who we are” – and also a sense of urgency in the looks of his eyes that dart about and in quick jerks of his chair as if searching for what to do/say next. He is at one moment rushed and abrupt as he changes courses in mid-sentence; and in the next, he is mesmerizingly calm and leading us through a guided fantasy, urging us to close our eyes and picture being with “your special person, living or dead.” He opens without trying to find closure such monumental questions as “What are we here for? What do we want to find?” And then he decides with a bit of a smile and a sudden twinkle in his expression to show us a short video of screaming animals (camel, goat, sheep, cat, and Domingo Pavarotti).
Along with “Time,” “Life” and “Death” co-star with Guy as his companions on the stage. He reminds us that everyone is always talking about “life and death” but that he wants us to concentrate on the life side of the equation during our hour together. Guy tells us soon after his appearance that “we’re here to say good-bye but maybe also to get a little better saying hell-o.” Implied in his ramblings is that whatever time any of us has left, we need to make the best use to say, do, communicate to others, and even remember of others all that we can while we still have Time on our side.
The magic of Tony Hale’s performance as Guy is that we somehow begin to know him, care for him, and certainly like him although we know almost no facts or background about him. We hear a quick remark that he was once a swimming instructor for kids; we see he is now in a wheelchair; we see some pictures flash on the screen when he was a cute kid (“That was a while ago … That takes me back”), but we learn little else of his resumé or history. And yet we are transfixed as we accompany him on his wanderings of thoughts, remembrances, philosophies, and totally from-nowhere factoids (“You produce two swimming pools of saliva in your life … Use it wisely”). And as the minutes pass all too quickly, we keep waiting to understand exactly why he and we are here but not worrying too much to discover too soon the answer.
Part of that answer does become clearer by the eventual appearance of a woman named Lisa who is clearly someone Guy seems to know as a regular visitor although she does ask, “Do you remember me?” Kathryn Smith-McGlynn herself is both mysterious and familiar, both all business and yet a little playful and frivolous in a loving way (“Want this bottle of bubbles?”). She is there to check on Guy, give him comfort (like a cool cloth on his forehead), and also to do some yoga stretches and a few crazy dance moves while he naps. We watch again with some amusement, curiosity, and an increasing sense that her purpose and the reason for Guy’s choice of themes and topics are soon to become clarified.
And we begin to understand that what we are seeing and experiencing may be real-time occurring or may be in fact be what is just going on inside of Guy’s mind. What parts are real and what parts are a host of bombarding thoughts and memories going on in his head are up for grabs; and yet the impact is emotionally very real for those of us that are part of whatever it is we are part of – reality or dream.
Before we meet Guy in his underwear lying on the stage, we watch a playlet that Will Eno has written specifically for this ACT production, one featuring four of the company’s MFA students (Dinah Berkeley, Leroy S. Graham III, Emma Van Lare, and Jeff Wittekiend) and also starring Kathryn Smith-McGlynn. The vignette’s purpose, it appears, is to ready us for the sense of the unexpected, unpredictable that we will experience in Wakey, Wakey as well as introduce us to incidental irregularities that surprise and leave us scratching our heads while still being intrigued and enjoying.
Kathyrn Smith-McGlynn walks into a community college classroom (misspelling her name on the board as Ms. Foretser, seemingly on purpose) as a substitute instructor, immediately moving into a lecture on “Sacred Places, Architecture, and Time.” When someone interjects, “This is Driver’s Ed,” she only momentarily pauses before proceeding with the correct folder of class notes while also making declarations like “Everything is always a lot of things” (followed by urging students to “write that down”) or leading the both bewildered and bemused (according to which you are looking at) students in a guided fantasy “to pretend that none of this is pretending because most of it is.”
And thus Will Eno, Anne Kaufman, and this ACT production seeks to loosen us up and prepare us for what is coming in Wakey, Wakey.
Kimie Nishikawa has designed both the small classroom and the setting for Guy’s appearance, the latter with stacked boxes along the walls that tellingly look as if someone is about to move. Nooks in the wall seem to have no purpose but will open to reveal part of the evening’s surprise, climatic, and celebratory ending. (Ms. Nishikawa is also the production’s costume designer.) Russell H. Champa’s lighting design shines fantasy-enhancing rays of colored light on the audience and also reveals hints of what is actually happening but is left unsaid as a bright light periodically shines from stage right across the stage toward Guy. Leah Gelpe’s large-screen projections are a source of much of Guy’s fun with us along with her designed sound effects that offer chances for us to laugh and to wonder what is real, what is planned, and what is dreamed randomness.
The ninety minutes of our evening at American Conservatory Theatre are probably quite different from what many of us were expecting as we came for the opening of another ACT play. For some, the stretch may be too much that they were asked to buy a ticket for an evening that mostly appears to be created on the spot with no beginning, middle, or end – a non-event with little occurring. However, for all who breath a bit, call on some patience, and take it all in without too quick of a judgment, Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey can also be seen as theatre near its best – a communal evening where we co-create with the performer an experience that is compelling, moving, and thought-provoking, even if for 98% of the evening we may not be actually sure what is happening or why.
Rating: 4 E
Wakey Wakey continues through February 16, 2020 2019 at American Conservatory Theater, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://www.act-sf.org/ or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.
Photos by Kevin Berne