The 6 o'clock news is gloomy enough as it is. Imagine if, every day at twilight, it also involved the threat from a sniper who liked to pick off random victims as they gathered in front of their TV sets to watch the broadcast.
The resulting unease and disorientation from such a scenario, the sense that the center will definitely not hold, gives a neat edge to "The Apocalypse Comes at 6PM," a satiric/surrealistic work from 2010 by Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov.
The play, now onstage at Single Carrot Theatre in an English translation by Angela Rodel, packs in a lot of biting commentary on contemporary society, relationships, alienation ("I had some friends during the 1980s; then they bought a VCR").
And since the action is centered in formerly totalitarian Eastern Europe, there are extra layers involving the state, surveillance, identity and the like. When the phrase "sleeping like the slaughtered" is uttered offhandedly, a huge chunk of painful history leaps out in a flash.
The unnamed characters include a jumpy guy who, convinced he is being watched (even a salt shaker is a possible eavesdropping device), becomes a parallel serial killer — his victims are actual televisions.
There's a man who kidnaps his own children and sets up a new home on one side of the still-fractious divide between Europe's East and West, leaving his wife on the other. A long-married couple argues each night, just to maintain interaction and help the time fly. An elderly German woman confronts her death and a Bulgarian caregiver.
Observing and commenting on all of these figures is the Accordionist, who, as a kid, tried to "murder" his accordion because it wasn’t cool like a piano. He suggests a twist on the Scheherazade legend, someone with an urge to keep the tales spinning in the hope that "the end of the world would always be put off."
The Accordionist is also something of a puppeteer who can manipulate characters and situations, but, in the end, finds his powers severely tested.
This structurally and thematically diffused play is not easy to digest, which, of course, makes it catnip for the Single Carrot troupe. Despite a lot of personnel changes in the troupe over the years, the company has retained its eagerness to embrace a theatrical challenge.
Directed with considerable momentum and nuance by Single Carrot's incoming artistic director, Genevieve de Mahy, "Apocalypse" provides an absorbing experience, for the most part, even when things are at their weirdest.
The action flows through the open-walled set, designed by Lisi Stoessel and placed in the center of the room, flanked by the audience.
Cubicles along the side lines become holding cells for characters seen in various states of anxiety or time-killing — one perusing a copy of Playboy, another twiddling a Rubik's Cube. The staging also includes an unexpected, wonderfully telling touch that involves the outdoors.
Finely graded lighting by Kel Millionie helps maintain an unsettled atmosphere throughout. The periodic appearance of red laser dots darting around the room, seeking fresh targets, produces the desired unsettledness.
The cast, most taking on multiple roles, sustains a level of intensity that helps hold the play's disparate elements together.
Paul Diem captures the Accordionist's blend of wry and spooky. Jack Sossman brings considerable tension to his assignments, especially one that involves a heated take on "Six Degrees of Separation" with a friend played by Seamus Miller, who also makes vivid contributions throughout.
The rest of the ensemble offers generally effective work in this strange exploration of what it means to face mortality amid the humdrum business of getting by, and how the waning light of dusk might conceal something a little apocalyptic prepared for any one of us.