If you ponied up for a fitness club only to find it was equipped with a one-pound dumbbell and a jump rope, you'd demand a refund. When it comes to exercising the brain, many plays are just as woefully equipped. But there is a challenging and exhilarating exception to that rule now at the Cleveland Public Theatre, in a production titled Two Plays by Gao Xingjian.
This Chinese playwright and novelist won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000, and has often been critical of China's collectivist mentality. He's all about exploring the landscape of the individual and how we find meaning in life. His avant-garde writing got his work banned — and Gao himself exiled — from his home country.
In the first play, Between Life & Death, a middle-aged woman dissects her married life through a series of seemingly mundane observations. Speaking of herself in the third person — which heightens our sense of her disconnection and disorientation — she shares tidbits about her hubby, who hovers in the background ("She can read him like a book"; "She doesn't want to hear his lies").
As the hour-long monologue unfolds under the astute direction of Holly Holsinger, a nicely restrained Anne McEvoy peels away her character's psychic depths. Meanwhile, her silent hubby (Mark Cipra) reappears in a clown outfit, and a young woman (Melissa Crum) adds mute commentary to the proceedings.
This visually riveting production, with a design concept by Joan Horvitz, features video projections that range from ethereal clouds to a ghastly disembowelment, shown on tall white fabric drops and white side screens. Combine that with string music, a flute, and a Caribbean folk tune, and the overall effect is compelling and oddly shattering, both in the moment and in retrospect.
After an intermission, during which the seating and playing area are totally rearranged, Gao's second work follows a young man (Nick Koesters), both internally and externally, on a journey to The Other Shore. Beginning with lines drawn on an ever-expanding sheet of paper, the man's world soon encompasses nine others, who swirl around him, coaxing and confronting, as he makes his way to his destination.
Director Raymond Bobgan orchestrates dance and movement, as well as light and darkness, to fashion a theatrical event that is as fascinating as it is confounding. While there are a couple of witty lines ("Without lying, there would be no good news"), the essence of this second play is a physical yearning, compared to the intriguing head games dominating the first piece.
In sum, Two Plays is a polished and provocative production that will stretch your mind, if you're willing to put the jump rope aside and stride into new and stimulating territory.