Last week, after writing the article on it, I had the privilege of going to see “The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other,” and I will be the first to admit I didn’t have any clue what was going on 60 percent of the time.
But the 40 percent I did understand was amazing.
The first indication this was going to be a less-than-normal theater experience (which is saying something in the theater world) was the lack of an actual plot synopsis anywhere online. After pulling up the Wikipedia page on “The Hour,” I realized why everyone else was so vague: The only explanation for the play is that Peter Handke wrote it after sitting in a café for an afternoon with a glass of wine.
When writing the article, the best explanation I received was from play director Josh Machamer.
“What (Handke) is doing is extrapolating us as voyeurs to see the amount of different characters and the amount of different people that walk through one particular space,” Machamer said. “That space is something that is physical; it is something that is metaphorical, that we can start to connect the dots of the stories that people take with them, not just within this particular space, but within the space that they bring with them.”
For those of you who just went, “Huh?” believe me, I get it. But after watching the show on Saturday, I can totally see what Machamer was saying.
The pre-play starts with a squarekeeper — played by Matthew Herman — sweeping throughout the University Union (UU) Plaza, at times interacting with the audience and passers-by by making them move their feet or even chasing them across the plaza. All of this occurred to the sound of upbeat, jazzy music playing through a set of wireless headphones. Every once in a while a mechanical voice — of whose message I haven’t yet fully grasped — would alert the audience members that the play was set to start in such and such minutes. As the anticipation rose through the chilly plaza, audience members bundled up under blankets and with hot drinks (Starbucks for me of course) to stay warm.
Finally, the play began with an actor walking across the “stage” with a shaking hand, and from there, everything exploded. Increasing exponentially in speed, more and more actors crossed the plaza wearing sterile white jumpsuits (which play an important part later), until all action stopped, as an actress in a red hat and heels crossed the stage.
All eyes were riveted on the character who I could only assume was the “beauty” — one of three continuous characters appearing throughout the production, played by Nora Doane — as she literally strutted across the plaza in bright, red heels. The quiet click-clack of her heels, in contrast with the loud music of before, was surprisingly impactful. I don’t know if the point of this was to emphasize the beauty’s role in the production, or if it was meant as commentary on the power of appearance in our society, but whatever it meant, from that moment I was hooked into the production.
As characters swirled, twirled, ran, marched, crawled, tumbled, cantered and dragged themselves through the plaza, my eyes were constantly drawn to new people and situations. While all of the ensemble had wonderful moments, one actress in particular fascinated me almost every time she walked across. Shelby Lewis, who I’ve seen perform with Smile and Nod, had such an expressive face in every character she brought to the stage that I would pretty much only watch her at times. Close to the end, when she stumbled across stage blindfolded, I was struck by how frightening taking those steps must be, and how much trust there must be between cast members to be willing to do that.
The other standout for me was Amy Shank as the “fool.” Her wide-eyed observation of the chaos surrounding her was the calm in the middle of a storm. Though she was branded a fool — someone less than everyone else — she seemed to be the only one who realized how at times ridiculous and funny, or by contrast sad and awful, the people around her were. She was truly an outsider, like us audience members, looking in, which made her moment of realization at the end all the more powerful. The joy on her face when she realized she could remove her white jumpsuit, and become a distinct person separate from the uniformed world of the previous hour, made all of the confusion about the meaning of the play fade away, leaving me with a sense of wonder at how everyone has an individual story, even if we don’t realize it.
I can’t even begin to guess the message of some of the interactions (try as I might, I just can’t wrap my head around why Moses walked through carrying the Ten Commandments, or why a bird-person fluttered about with a cage in hand), but I still came away from the performance with an awareness that wasn’t there before. Now, maybe instead of walking through the UU with my headphones in, obliviously heading to my next class, I’ll take a moment to wonder about the people walking past me. Who are they? Where do they come from? What is their story?
And maybe if I go watch the performance again, I’ll get the answer.