If you're at all anxious about having a midlife crisis, or still scarred from the one you experienced, you might want to steer clear of Single Carrot Theatre.
The company's world-premiere production of Ben Hoover's "Midlife" takes you deep inside the head of a woman named Beck. Her world becomes a volatile jumble of real, unreal and surreal as she grapples with her marriage, her job, her regrets and, above all, the inevitability of change.
"I wonder if other people are like me," she says. "Do their brains race?"
For two uninterrupted hours, the audience races along with Beck as she encounters an odd circus ("How often do you see a bear strolling down the sidewalk toward some unknown?"), a more or less friendly coffee shop, a couple rhapsodizing over a muffin and a skeleton key.
The journey eventually leads to another, older woman, who, it seems, has developed a very spooky way of getting past midlife crises and adding on a lot more years.
All the while, we get to hear Beck's inner thoughts through headphones — an extra touch of theatricality from director Kellie Mecleary. The headphone concept makes "Midlife" more direct and intimate, if not necessarily any clearer. Packed with incident and often highly poetic language, the play has its confusing moments.
Hoover, a neuroscientist and former Single Carrot ensemble member (he memorably directed the company's 2012 production of Caryl Churchill's "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?"), pretty much eschews conventional notions of linear structure or narrative.
The scattershot approach underlines the way our thought processes work, how fantasies can pop into our minds, how we second-guess our partners or potential mates. There's a little too much of this. Hoover tends to go on long tangents, drawing out or drumming in some of his points, to limited effect.
Still, there's a lot to be said for a playwright stretching and experimenting in an effort to open a fresh window into the human psyche. And telling points are certainly made about the unsettling state of being lonely even within a relationship, of being dulled by a midcareer plateau ("What is it that I actually do? Often it feels like nothing at all," Beck says).
Single Carrot treats the new work with respect and imagination. Mecleary places us within Beck's cerebrum and evokes a sense of neurons in constant motion as she places the cast through tightly choreographed moves.
Daniel Pinha's set, accented by silky fabrics that can be put to aerial acrobatic use, is complemented by live video that adds telling viewpoints along the way. A few deftly designed puppets (Jessica Rassp) turn up, too.
Katy Kincade's costumes include slinky blue outfits for each character identified as a homunculus, described in the play as "the metaphorical person sitting inside your head, inside the cubicle of your life, stray paper scraps left behind in the filing cabinets after they changed offices."
Genevieve de Mahy, Single Carrot's artistic director, delivers a strong, natural performance, in voice and gesture, as the caffeinated Beck, especially delivering introspective lines into a microphone for the benefit of the audience. Claire Schoonover brings authority and sly menace to the role of Ma.
In a nice bit of local theater community synergy, the cast includes Annex Theatre's artistic director, Evan Moritz, who does sensitive work as Beck's husband, John, and Interrobang Theatre Company artistic director Katie Hileman as one of the homunculi.
Kaya Vision stands out for his fluent aerial work, Trevor Wilhelms for his sinister suppleness as a figure called V.
As John tells Beck at one point, "Our brains are always changing. ... [In] a sense, we're always a different person. So don't worry."
At its best, "Midlife" illustrates just how hard it is not to worry.