There is nothing like a non-linear, non-narrative, non-anything-conventional play to stir up the senses — as long as it's produced intelligently and sensitively. That's what Cohesion Theatre Company and Strand Theater Company provide in an absorbing co-production of "The Pillow Book" by Anna Moench.
The work, receiving its Baltimore premiere, takes its title from a 1,000-year-old Japanese collection of recollections and musings, a kind of bedside reading that combines elements of diarist and essayist.
Moench takes off on that concept with the equivalent of random page-turning. Her "Pillow Book” examines relationships, values, expectations, pleasures and fears through a series of brief vignettes that bounce between past and present, the related and seemingly unrelated, the real and the surreal, the poetic and the commonplace.
From this jumble -- Moench describes the play as a "fluid collage of experiences and thoughts" -- there emerges a portrait of people trying to make sense of each other, to accommodate one moment and hold firm the next.
There are three characters -- the soft-shelled John (Joseph Coracle), Deb (Michele Mass) and Deborah (Rebecca Ellis). Some scenes focus on John and Deb, others on John and Deborah, who may or may not be manifestations (woman-ifestations?) of the same person. Is Deb part of John's previous life? Fantasy life? Both?
The back-and-forth of incident and locale -- a blinding in the Serengeti, a mishap on a Colorado mountaintop, unnerving scenes in a hospital, a visit from a bedbug exterminator -- keeps you continually off-guard, which can be a rather wonderful sensation. It's like encountering a haphazard collection of fascinating clues to a mystery you can't yet identify.
Gradually, things begin to cohere in a strange way as characters and their concerns come into focus -- concerns about closeness; the balancing act required to stay together ("I cannot make one more apology today; I'm going to bed now"); possible parenthood ("There wouldn't be any babies if people actually thought about what it meant to have them"); and much more.
It becomes easier and easier to identify with what these people are going through, not so much specifically, perhaps, but emotionally, philosophically.
And when Moench shows off her talent for imagery, the effect can be quite remarkable, as in this passage spoken by Deb: "Immortality is a faded portrait; of water coursing, sun opening, hands reaching up, up, opacity and resilience and repair. Movement to stillness and the muffled silence of God."
You may find yourself unmoored by the play, but it's hard not to feel the pull of personalities and situations as they unfold, given the finely matched, often remarkably affecting cast. Each of the actors deftly uncovers the vulnerability of the characters, along with the heart.
The staging, directed with keen appreciation for pacing and subtlety by Jonas David Grey, features an intimate set (Alicia Stanley), given abundant atmosphere by the lighting (Lana Riggins) and assorted, perhaps too literal projections (Grey) on diaphanous curtains.
A challenging play, a thoughtful co-production, a welcome addition to the summer theater season in Baltimore.