tempOdyssey

Playwright Dan Dietz ponders the mysteries of life, death -- and chickens.

The morning after I saw tempOdyssey, I was at the Boulder Farmers' Market buying chicken parts for stock. "These are probably still warm," said the poultry man, handing me a plastic bag of feet. "The chickens were running around on them yesterday."

This was an image I didn't particularly want to dwell on. Few of us have reconciled our appetite for flesh with the fact that living beasts are slaughtered to sate it. I ease my conscience by buying from small producers who assure me that their animals are humanely treated and happy until the day of their deaths, but I have to avoid thinking about what's at the core of our transaction: terror, struggle, a racing heartbeat, life pulsing and indisputable, and then -- poof! -- death. Inertness. Meat. Now I was considering this for the second time in two days because, as it happens, chicken slaughter plays an important role in tempOdyssey.

As the play begins, we're looking at a darkened stage, a file cabinet suspended in the air and, on either side, looming slabs that could be the walls of a canyon, undersea formations or the mysterious rocks of Stonehenge. A woman's voice begins talking through the murk, saying something about the Big Bang, obliteration, black holes, a Little Bang cooked up in a child's play oven. The lighting changes, and we see that the featureless slabs make up a city skyline -- but then there's another change, and no, they're only mundane stacks of filing cabinets.

Labor daze: Dee Covington and Jason Henning in 
tempOdyssey.
Labor daze: Dee Covington and Jason Henning in tempOdyssey.

Issues of scale and the conflation of things great and small, primordial and ordinary, petty and portentous, the death of a single chicken and the destruction of a universe -- these are the elements that drive playwright Dan Dietz's text. Black holes, he tells us, take up zero space and go on forever; the smallest of them can choke off a world.

The protagonist, Genny, has just secured a job as a temp at Ithaca Techno Solutions. She receives incoherent instructions from her predecessor, who can't wait to rush out the door, and is patronized by her incompetent boss. Eventually, she's befriended by another temp whose name appears to be Jim (at ITS, all temps are called either Jane or Jim) and becomes part of a temp underworld, a place in which you're neither inside nor outside the sheltering organization and where your mistakes will tend to go unnoticed. TempOdyssey is billed as a dark comedy, and at this point you're expecting something Dilbert-flavored, or perhaps a variation on the satiric cult film Office Space. But this play is more an extended meditation on myth and personality, dailiness and doom, than a standard drama. Unrooted in anything most of us would peg as reality, it has a way of spinning off into the stars or spiraling down into blackness -- almost literally, thanks to the phenomenal work of set designer Charles Dean Packard, lighting manager Shannon McKinney and Brian Freeland's sound.

Genny is trying to outrun her own life with a permanent series of temporary jobs, and the reason can be found in her history. She grew up on a dusty poultry farm in Georgia and watched her father kill chickens as farmers used to in those days: picking them up one by one by the head and breaking their necks with a swing of his arm. When Genny tried it, the chicken died instantly and without pain. Delighted with her skill, her parents consigned the job of killing to her, and Little Genny's painlessly slaughtered chickens became famous for their flavor. Customers flocked, and over the years, she killed thousands of birds.

Now obsessed with all the feathered corpses, the adult Genny begins to believe she is death itself. She never utters the Baghavad Gita quotation famously spoken by Robert Oppenheimer after the first nuclear explosion, but it vibrates through the text: "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Naturally, her impact on Ithaca Techno Solutions -- which involves a walking, talking dead boy and a bomb -- is cataclysmic.

In Curious Theatre Company's otherwise strong production of this world premiere, Dee Covington seems miscast as Genny -- not young and vulnerable enough to be suffering all of Genny's frantic questions about identity, not scary enough when Genny is dangerous and enraged. Rhonda Brown is vital and funny as a saintly one-time temp, and also as a Li'l Abner-ish Mama; she's matched by Verl Hite's equally strong and Abner-ish Daddy. (Come to think of it, Al Capp's cartoon Shmoos, who are so eager to please that they gladly give up their bodies to anyone who's hungry, represent the perfect solution to the meat conundrum.) As Jim, or "Dead Body Boy," Jason Henning comes close to running away with the show. (Cigarettes provide an important plot point for this character, but the state's ban on smoking -- which director Chip Walton has challenged, so far unsuccessfully -- prevents Henning from lighting up even an herbal cigarette. Walton's solution is ingenious but distracting; the courts should reconsider this ban's effect on art.)

TempOdysseyis very funny in places, but funny isn't really the point. It has serious things to say, too, but they're things you can't really put into words. Still, the play does have an impact: By the end of the evening, you feel as if you've just survived a huge, wind-driven surge of flame that heated your face and singed your hair, then moved on -- inexplicably -- without harming you.

 
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