The seven founders -- and also writer-designer-director-performers -- of Buntport Theater are exploring new territory. Known for a prankish and highly literate experimentalism, the team is currently showing Realism: The Mythical Brontosaurus, which, as the title suggests, is pretty much a realistic play. There are no lopped-off limbs here or absurdist twists of plot. No one bursts into song. You won't see anyone skating on artificial ice. Unlike Buntport's previous pieces, Realism, though communally written, could be performed by a completely different group of actors.
As always at Buntport, the set is ingenious. The audience is seated on two sides of the cavernous theater space. Between the groups, there's a structure showing the first and second floors of a house. You can see right through it, and into all the rooms at once -- a living room and kitchen on the bottom floor, two bedrooms with a bathroom between them above. It feels a little like peering into a backless dollhouse. When one of the characters opens the kitchen's gleaming refrigerator, you see that it's a clutter of cartons, bottles and containers, just like your own and everyone else's.
On the upper floor, Jack lies on his bed, alternately reading and staring into space. Although he seems calm enough, we soon learn that he's suffering a crisis of faith centered on the status of the brontosaurus. Jack has just learned that "brontosaurus" isn't the creature's rightful scientific name -- though brontosauri do, in fact, exist as a taxon, or species group. Furthermore, scientists have been screwing up museum reconstructions of brontosauri for over a century, equipping them with heads far larger than we now believe they possessed. Or would have possessed, if they existed.
Okay, I said Buntport was assaying realism; I didn't say they were completely abandoning their off-kilter worldview.
Into Jack's house blunders his sister Fiona, with her fiancé, Michael. Once she realizes that Jack is closed in his room, Fiona tries everything in her power to get him out. Michael, meanwhile, just wants to take a dump and is interested only in some quiet time alone in the bathroom. As the play progresses, we begin to understand Fiona's desperation. She and Jack used to hide from their abusive father together until Fiona, the older of the two, left home, forcing Jack to face the violence alone. She's particularly concerned because Jack has been suicidal in the past.
Jack isn't keen on Fiona's explanation; he finds it intrusive. His feelings and thoughts, he insists, are his own. Poor Michael is left squirming, and the tension between the siblings threatens to destabilize his relationship with Fiona.
The quartet of performers is rounded out by Ben, Jack's calm and commonsensical lover, who is far more willing than Fiona to allow Jack to untangle his skein of twisted emotional and philosophical speculation on his own. Ben relaxes with the newspaper and periodically slips tortillas under Jack's door.
The play touches on heavy themes, but the writing is light, deft, witty and completely lacking in sentimentality. And it turns out the Buntporters are skilled and appealing straight actors. Erin Rollman is just as absorbing to watch as Fiona as when she's inhabiting the bratty teenage personae that routinely leave Buntport audiences in stitches. She's very funny here, but she also does full justice to the sadder moments. I've always been a fan of Evan Weissman, and his Jack has a dotty, blandly underplayed sincerity that works perfectly. Who'd have guessed how effective Brian Colonna could be as a regular guy? And the usually hyperkinetic Erik Edborg displays his range, too, with a Ben who's calm, strong and rather kindly.
Of course, Realism boasts moments of complete insanity. This wouldn't be Buntport otherwise. There's a running joke about the objects slipped under Jack's door, which finds its apotheosis when Jack agrees to pass Michael a roll of toilet paper. You really have to see for yourself the touching earnestness and concentration with which the two actors manage this feat.
The question of what's real and what isn't keeps raising its non-brontosauran head. Fiona finds her own yearbook picture unrecognizable; her childhood memories differ from Jack's. There's talk about the Shroud of Turin, and we learn that Ben is a practicing Christian. Finally, one of the characters arrives at a solution to a world of uncertainty: "I have to believe that what I believe is what I believe."
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