Would you want to live your life if you knew beforehand it has relatively no meaning and will cause more harm than good? What if you also already knew the future is going to bleak and there isn’t a God damn thing you can do to change the outcome. Bruce Norris’ masterful new play “A Parallelogram,” uses profound existential questions like these to cut his characters to the bone while giving the middle finger to Hollywood ’s romantic notion of time travel.
“A Parallelogram,” which is currently making its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre under the direction of Anna D. Shapiro, is simply a profound play. To sum it up, it’s a dark comedy perfectly balanced with sci-fi elements and unique curveballs. Norris brilliantly turns the tried and true method of knowing the future as a gift on its head. He cleverly orchestrates the concept of too much knowledge being a bad thing. His decision, as pessimistic as it may be, worked to create an extraordinary play.
The play begins with a couple in their rather nondescript bedroom. The man is a middle-aged corporate something-or-other who enjoys drinking a Heineken, watching the game and yammering on about how white men got the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Ironically, this is all while he has a Latino man (Tim Bickell) diligently mowing his lawn. From the very beginning, it becomes evidently clear this smug character named Jay (Tom Irwin) was destined to be the bad guy and yet would never understand why.
Sitting on the bed, is a thirty-something year old woman named Bee (Kate Arrington). She restlessly plays solitaire in an attempt to mask that she consumed by an existential crisis. Bee believes she can see the future which proves to be quite the burden (especially when it comes to altering it).
In the corner is an old woman (Marylouise Burke) who watches the action while enjoying a smoke, Oreos and brandishing what appears to be a remote control. It quickly becomes apparent she’s Bee from the future and her remote control is capable of time travel. Breaking the cardinal rule of time travel, Bee 2 converses and can only be seen and heard by Bee. Using her trusty remote, Bee 2 can zap herself and Bee to any point in their life. It appears Bee 2’s sole purpose is to convince Bee that nothing she does has much weight on the world. Humanity is doomed and doesn’t warrant saving. Hell, even if she tried the results would be minimal at best so why waste the effort.
Bee 2 hardly resembles Bee. She’s lost all sense of compassion. Case in point, Bee 2 barely bats an eye after telling Bee about a global disaster that will wipe out most of the world’s population. She rationalizes, in a joking sense, it’s a good thing because now parking is no longer an issue.
Knowing the future weighs heavily on Bee and she begins to unravel at the seams. Is life really worth living if you already know what is going to happen and will be, more or less, apathetically trapped in it?
Aside from becoming very self-aware of her life, Bee forces Jay into her crisis. Jay is too shortsighted to become invested in Bee’s initial quandaries. He’s the type of person who doesn’t just accept what he’s told but rather takes stock in fate and freewill. Like the future, their relationship is doomed.
Norris than brings Bee’s sanity into question. This happens after Dr. Hein (also Marylouise Burke) reveals Bee could have a brain tumor. If this were true all of Bee's conjecture about the future just the delusions of a person who is losing their mind. One must ponder if Bee is just losing her mind or is she actually haunted by the future? By believing Bee is losing her mind, one must conclude that fate is not predetermined. By believing she has premonitions, one must concede to their own insignificance in the greater scheme of destiny.
At no point are the characters, in particular their emotions, ever lost in this shuffle. Instead, Norris and Shapiro carefully skin them alive, leaving them raw and exposed for the audience to examine. It’s then up to the viewer to decipher and draw conclusions based on what they’re seeing.
Needless to say, there is plenty for the audience to mull over. Questions are raised about the notion of “good,” fate, utter futility, relationships, confinement, the pros and cons of technology, fear, finances, sanity, etc. Take my word on it, this all makes for great discussion after the play.
Burke and Irwin (as Bee 2 and Jay respectively) did a remarkable job of making complicated characters endearing. They gave some of the best stage performances I have ever seen and rightfully deserve as many accolades as I can give.
“A Parallelogram” is a must see show that will force your mind to think outside of the box. The show runs from now until August 29th. Tickets range from $20-$70 and are available at www.steppenwolf.org or (312) 335-1650.