The Zero Hour. By Madeleine George. Directed by Robyne Parrish. Off the Wall Productions, Main Street, Carnegie, PA. October 25–November 9.
At Off the Wall Theater currently, Erika Cuenca and Daina Michelle Griffith are giving virtuoso performances as multiple characters. Their principal roles are the enmeshed lovers Rebecca (Cuenca) and O (Griffith). Cuenca’s Rebecca is the barely controlled Felix of the pair, gainfully employed writing school textbooks, riding the New York subway to work, seeing a therapist. Griffith is O, unpredictable, funny, impossible. She’s a Wild Thing, but one who doesn’t leave their one-room, leaky-ceilinged squat. They squabble comically like old married people. Both assume other roles. Griffith in particular becomes a dizzying variety of people Rebecca meets, from Rebecca’s therapist to a subway-riding Nazi with hypnotic blue eyes. Cuenca becomes O’s mother, then Rebecca’s.
I find it exhilarating to see theater whose artifice is transparent, as here. A row of chairs and a horizontal pole represent the subway, always in sight. (The Number 7 train is practically a co-star.) Quick costume changes take place on stage. The same person plays many roles. It’s a stunt, in a way, like watching the Cirque de Soleil of acting. But the level of acting here goes beyond virtuosity. Cuenca and Griffith inhabit their roles, make them human—and, not incidentally, sympathetic. We care about Rebecca and O. And they’re sexy. And comic.
At a poetry workshop recently I said that I generally feel that poetry that links the Holocaust with some personal emotional travail is disproportionate. Narcissistic. The Zero Hour comes perilously close to this but tactfully avoids it. Here, Rebecca is writing a text about the Holocaust for seventh-graders. O wants her to include material on Nazi persecution of gays, impossible in the bland, offend-nobody textbook world. The political is the personal: O wants Rebecca to come out, to her mother and the world. Rebecca doesn’t want to think about her sexual identity. She becomes more and more preoccupied, finally obsessed, with the Holocaust, until she’s seeing Nazis everywhere, including the train.
John Steffenauer is effective in a small role. I’d call him the deus ex machina that enables Rebecca’s climactic recognition, but the role’s no deus, more like a dork. No, sorry, Steffenauer, not a dork. A decent guy, maybe. The direction and technical team deserve a lot of credit. (Those costumes had to be engineered for quick changes.)