Antlia Pneumatica

You walk into the theatre, and the stage looks large. It's dimly lit, and there are few set pieces. An over-sized butcher-block island sits at the center. Cookbooks line one of its sides. There's a built in sink, but it's small enough that there's still a great, big work surface. The wooden beams lingering over the island suggest a roof, and the stage right beams are adorned with leafy tree branches, suggesting the outdoors. The walls are all black; you can barely discern the two cutouts on the back wall that serve as entry and exit points. It's like a vacuum, both sucking you in (maybe back to something) and leaving room for your imagination (or memory) to run wild.

This scenic design, by Rachel Hauck (Dry Powder), wonderfully sets the stage for Anne Washburn's Antlia Pneumatica, a play that works better on stage than I think did on the page. It's essentially a memory play, and what are memories if not feelings, recollections of some sensory experience? Indeed, Washburn (Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play), provides different sensory experiences throughout.

In addition to Hauck's set, Tyler Micoleau's lighting design obscures and illuminates goings on, conversations, and memories to great effect. I'm thinking, in particular, of a moment toward the end of the play when two characters are talking "outside"; they start in the dark, but as their relationship (or the memory of it) becomes clear, the lights come up, mirroring the revelations.

Add to that Leah Gelpe's sound design, which is integral to this play. In the program notes, Washburn says her grandfather once told her that, in his day, people would say they were going to "listen" to a play. She plays with this idea, and several scenes happen off stage; we might be looking at something happening on stage, but we are hearing an off-stage conversation (an actual, important conversation, not just background noise).

What are all these people talking about and remembering? In the style of The Big Chill, the plot (I use that term with caution) revolves around a group of late-thirty/early forty-somethings gathering for their friend's funeral. Nina (Annie Parisse) is hosting everyone at her family's ranch. Her sister, Liz (April Matthis), is there, as are friends Ula (Maria Striar), Len (Nat DeWolf), and the late-arriving Bama (Crystal Finn). Also on hand is Adrian (Rob Campbell), Nina's former flame, whom she hasn't seen in 16 years.

But is he there? Washburn plays with time and memory so that even while we're watching Antlia Pneumatica, we are questioning what's real. As a theatrical experience, that's interesting. The play becomes what it means to us. That's an idea that is reinforced throughout the play, most effectively and Romantically in that dark-to-light scene between Nina and Adrian.

The two are outside, and Adrian is showing Nina different constellations. (It's in this scene that he invokes the play's title; no spoilers.) His point is that the stars—these bright remnants of something that happened long ago and far away—are whatever you want them to be. The constellations are not set; we can rearrange them. Sort of like memory and time; they're simply these constructs we use to help ourselves make sense of things.

Antlia Pneumatica, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll (Iowa), is a somewhat challenging play, asking us to wrestle with the big questions of the universe. As I was watching it, I didn't feel fully engrossed, but the more I think about it, the more I appreciate the experience. (Of course, as I was watching I was thrilling over the sensational Parisse (Clybourne Park, Becky Shaw). I didn't thrill as much over Campbell (All the Way); I kept wishing Michael Esper were playing the role.) Much like Washburn's Mr. Burns, you need to sit with Antlia Pneumatica for a little while, let it sink in. It's almost like you have to let this feast for your senses happen to you, and then let your memory take over.