Life is a temp job.
Just ask Genny (Amy Hopper), the heroine, of sorts, of Dan Dietz's phantasmagoric, coruscating tempOdyssey, on view for all-too-short a run through Nova Arts Project. "In the office, but not of the office," she says proudly. She's a little too peppy, and a little off. While explaining her love of the anonymity that temping provides — her armor against the world — she casually drops what will become her mantra throughout her one very bad day: "It wasn't me, blame it on the black hole." As she stands babbling to us about how she got to Seattle from her home in Appalachia, scientific equations zoom by and disappear into the distance, as if pulled into their own black hole, and silhouettes of scientists in white lab coats arrange the sparse pieces of set — triangular hulks of cogs and pipes — behind her. Among them is a giant chicken. And this is just the beginning of Genny's odd, surreal long day's journey. Like Genny, who says she's got a hook in her heart, we, too, are hooked immediately.
Playwright Dietz never lets up, and this dreamy work is the most original in many a season. I think this is his first play to appear in Houston, and it's about time. If tempOdyssey is a harbinger of what his work is like, bring it on! The most distinctive theater voice since Harry Kondoleon, his is a refreshing collage of contempo speak and bold, bald poetry — Williams without swoon, O'Neill without pomp.
Genny temps for the mysterious Ithaca Techno Solutions (the one open reference to Homer's Odyssey — Ithaca being the homeland hero Odysseus longs to return to). It's her first day on the job, and Last Day Girl (Jenni Rebecca Stephenson) is ecstatic that she's out of there, brushing off any office callers with a string of fuck-you's as she quickly lists Genny's slave duties: Never leave your desk, bathroom break twice a day, lunch at three and never, ever, serve a drink without a coaster! Then, poof, she's out the door. This office comedy plays like an absurdist No Exit-version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, what with Nepotism Guy (Paul Salazar) screaming about a broken pencil and luring Genny to "see my inbox," and office confrere, temp Dead Body Boy (Bernardo Cubria), telling Genny tales of what really goes on inside Ithaca. But Dietz has more, much more, to show and tell.
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We're whisked into Genny's nightmarish childhood on a hardscrabble Appalachian farm outside Atlanta. The waterfall on the backdrop flows blood-red. Genny's an expert "chicken choker," able to kill chickens instantly without pain, which explains the giant fowl stalking the play. She's her own goddess of death, and her daddy (Seán Patrick Judge) sees his profits skyrocket with the tender-tasting fresh kill. But even goddesses have their Achilles' heel, and Genny's soft white hands are doomed. Get too close to her and you're dead, and all by way of the throat, be it cancer, a suicidal hanging or whiplash.
Genny's got to temp so she can keep moving. When Dead Body Boy gets too close — first a touch, then a kiss — he's toast, too. But in Dietz's magical, powerful world, he becomes Genny's conscience, rising from the dead as he frantically wraps packing tape around his neck to support his head from flopping over. Genny has discovered what Ithaca's madmen are up to, and she holds the key to the universe in her little temp hands. She's going to blow up the building and probably half of Seattle with it. At the debatable happy ending, Genny's place in the universe is secure as she faces her fate on her own.
The simple yet radiant Nova Arts production owes much to the pinpoint accuracy of director Clinton Hopper (husband of Amy) and his dazzling actors. Amy Hopper is all country-eyed wonder at life, caught up in her crazy-quilt inner world, a dream within a dream. She is, at once, innocent and mythic avenger. Cubria, as Dead Body Boy, is downright brilliant, whether playing sad-sack temp or the resurrected Cassandra-type, and Paul Salazar is all quirks and spaz as Nepotism Guy. Judge plays bumpkin Daddy straight, which brings out the pathos, even while Mama (Jenni Rebecca Stephenson) wrestles the sun to knock it off the pine limb so it can set. (This bizarre theatrical non sequitur is one of many that Dietz sprinkles throughout like stardust.) Another frightening crazy is Salvador Chevez's Scientist, the ultimate absentminded professor. Experimenting with deadly force beyond his control, he's so giddy when relating the quirks and quarks in Big Bang theory, he gets his hands all twisted up in his lab coat pockets.
The marvelous swooping projections by Antonio Aguries III, the colorful, atmospheric lighting by Sarah Lazorwitz and the minimal setting imaginatively rendered by Bryan White all contribute to make tempOdyssey by far the most thought-provoking show in Houston. I doubt it will be eclipsed any time soon.
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