Andrea’s voice is desperate but composed as she steps to the microphone, flanked by Leo’s exhausted body heaped on nearby chairs. Words are all she has at this moment, and in the world of Satori Group’s new play Returning to Albert Joseph, words are all the matter. Albert Joseph has created a society of authority and homogeny via forced relearning of language. Citizens’ brains are “cleaved” (wiped clean) leaving a blank slate for to be retaught to conform. In an attempt to gain access to the safe hideout, Andrea speaks to some overseeing counter-authority entity through the mic, explaining how she and Leo met at a resistance group “gathering” – she a hardened veteran of the movement, he just a curious observer that came at a friend’s behest (“I was just hoping to care about things,” says Leo). When the authority forces crash the meeting, things become chaotic and violent. Leo is cleaved, but he and Andrea escape, go on the run, and eventually end up at his old, closed off school, the West Newton Albert Joseph Institute for Elementary Learning. Cleaved Leo can’t even understand Andrea’s words, but she quickly realizes he might be able to be retaught in a way that opposes the authoritative norm.
Returning to Albert Joseph doesn’t spoon-feed anything to the audience. The complexity and exact workings of the authoritarian world created by playwright Spike Friedman is vaguely sketched out, but hard specifics are left untold. This willful withholding makes the characters’ lines seem more vital, as each line could provide more clues to help piece the bigger picture together. In a similar vein, Returning to Albert Joseph’s greatest strength comes from the way it simply builds a sense of location. Despite a bare bones staging, the characters' straightforward descriptions when recounting their escape after the gathering fleshes out the sterile, quarantine nature of the society and their surroundings. It provides all the colors to paint a clear mental picture of the environment without ever going out of its way to do so.
The informational void works in part because of the way Returning to Albert Joseph’s two characters (and the actors’ portrayals) counterbalance each other. Andrea (LoraBeth Barr) acts with stern, clenched-jaw, rationality. Leo (Quinn Franzen) possess a wide-eyed naivety before being cleaved and becomes overwhelmed by infantile fear after the act. The combo and their growing bond is compelling enough to make one focus one each flurried bursts of prose, and wait to digest the info during the moments of silence that follow.
The first act is gripping thanks to the unrelenting pace of its linguistics. Even though it’s told mostly in flashback (so you know they’re both alive) and none of the authoritative force is seen, the tense potential danger feels omnipresent. Quick scene cuts via blackness only heighten the intense, frantic tone. Audience perspective shifts for the second act, and while it clearly lays out the show’s thematic intent of the vitality of caring, it falls sharply off act one’s pace. This is in large part due to its structure, which (for all intents and purposes) consists solely of two monologues. It almost seems more like an epilogue to a one-act play than a balanced second segment. Despite this, Returning to Albert Joseph proves to be an interesting and fiercely intelligent take on sci-fi dystopian storytelling, one where knowledge becomes the oppressor of emotion, and therefore humanity.
Returning to Albert Joseph
Thru May 25, The Lab @ Inscape, $15