Roller Skating With My Cousin will have you going in circles

There's an expectant, zizzy feeling in the air, along with the smell of wet paint, as Roller Skating With My Cousin begins. Everyone's in a high good humor, and between the whirling designs on the floor, the crazy whine of music and the promo materials that bill the piece as "part science lab, part disco," I'm expecting something fast, smart and funny. Or with the beauty that sometimes results when the clarity and precision of science melds with the dreamlike associative tendencies of art.

Quantum physics is clearly on director Brian Freeland's mind. One of the play's best scenes occurs at the beginning, as two women explain sequentially that anyone can create a universe; you can do it at your kitchen sink by simply compressing matter — any amount of matter — to the point of combustion. They discuss this with the authority and matter-of-factness of a couple of sorority girls swapping cookie recipes. We learn that gravity can repel as well as attract, and hear about the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland — a massive particle accelerator created to solve such mysteries as what happened a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, and whether what some scientists have termed "the God particle" exists.

Biblical themes and references abound, including a Tower of Babel built of cardboard boxes that later becomes the Berlin Wall. Ronald Reagan appears as a ram-horned Satan. Nancy Reagan hovers about, as does Nancy Davis — presumably the former first lady's doppelgänger, the Nancy who, in a different universe, didn't marry Ronnie and ended up flipping burgers. For good measure, Nancy Sinatra is here, too. At least the name appears in the program, but no one sings "These Boots Are Made for Walking."

This is the kind of experimental theater in which sound gets blurred, faces are obscured in shadow, and meaning is deliberately withheld. There's a guy in a gas mask stationed above much of the action, but it's hard to tell what he represents, and impossible — literally — to see what he's doing. And what the hell does it mean when a group of women carry what look like stiff shirts — or perhaps dead birds — on the ends of sticks, and then, one at a time, throw them over the wall of boxes representing the Tower of Babel?

No, you can't put all these pieces together and come up with anything resembling a storyline, or even a consistent theme, and it seems a bit of a copout to call this seething mass of ideas and images a mash-up, as the LIDA Project does of this original work. Surely a mash-up should be more than just a bunch of disparate things squeezed together in the hope they'll combust. It's okay that there's an intentionally homemade, funky quality to the stagecraft, with walls built of cardboard boxes and men walking around in stripy tube socks and costumes that look like they came from their mothers' clothes hampers, but if you're going to be funky, you have to be funky with authority. And while I yield to no one in my loathing for Ronald Reagan and love watching him slammed by comics, the level of political satire here is fairly rudimentary.

Freeland's most successful and exciting strategy is the introduction of roller skating. Some of his regular actors skate in this production, and he has also enlisted the services of several of the Denver Roller Dolls, among them Julie "Angela Death" Adams and Gabrielle "Fonda Payne" Begeman. What a difference these women make. No sooner do they shoot onto the stage like a crew of crazed girl particles, almost colliding, crossing and whizzing apart, turning circles, than breathing quickens everywhere in the house. It's riveting, surprising, a beautiful cross — mash-up, if you want — between theater and life. You find yourself intently studying the Dolls' bodies and faces, makeup, clothes. Because clearly they're from another universe.

The ending does much to bring all the elements full circle. The gas-masked man sits in a nest-like circle of straw, black-gloved and half naked, attempting to light a match. When the tallest of the skaters moves in and pours water over his body, it seems an act of mercy. But another skater glides on, and then another; they pour first more water, then a white dust that seems to cause him pain, then water and dust alternately — and while I have no idea what all this signifies, the image is evocative and a nice marriage of clashing energies on which to end the evening.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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