It's Okay to Miss Much of What's Being Shown in things missing/missed

The setup:

Site-specific theater. Immersive theater. Actorless performance theater. Just when you think you’re up on all the hip, non-traditional types of shows, those crazy, artsy kids come up with something new. The latest to hit Houston is a genre called devised theater, and it’s the basis for Obsidian Theatre’s new show things missing/missed.

But isn’t all theater devised? I mean, don’t playwrights make up a story and don’t directors figure out how to stage it and don’t actors come up with ways to depict the characters? Yeah, but what if the team of them go into the rehearsal space with nothing but an idea for a show and create the whole darn thing from there? Voilà – devised theater!

In lesser artistic hands, this could spell disaster, but we go into this experience with some comfort/anticipation knowing two of the creators behind the experiment. Philip Hays, who played an integral part in Horse Head Theatre Company’s 2016 Houston Press MasterMind Award makes up one third of the artistic creative gang, as does Melissa Flower, who intrigued last season with her surreal memory play Hypocrite. Rounding out the gang is Justin Locklear, a Dallas curator/dramaturg unknown to us, but it stands to reason that if he’s hanging around with these two, there’s some good creative juice there.

So what exactly is the idea these three are riffing off of? It starts with the story of a hermit who became something of a legend for stealing stuff from people’s houses. His story then gets overlaid by ideas taken from, of all things, T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. The question the three say they are trying to ask is, what are we missing? With a premise like this, we certainly hope it isn’t their minds.

The execution:

I knew I shouldn’t have agreed to review this, I thought at the conclusion of the performance. Not because I disliked the show, not at all, in fact, although I will admit to not completely understanding it in several places. Rather, my hesitation comes because an experimentally conceptual show like this is almost impossible to capture for someone who wasn’t there. So bear with me as I try to make sense of it for you and in doing so hopefully make more sense out of it for me in the process.

The first thing to mention is that there is no real story. There is a man and a woman (Flower and Hays) living together as a couple (we think – they could be friends or even siblings, I suppose). And there is a hermit (Hays). The couple speaks not to each other but at and around each other, in short snippets of surreal conversation.

Man - “Have you seen my book?”
Woman – “Have you heard my song?”
Man – “What song?”
Woman – “The one I sing when I’m alone.”

Before you roll your eyes at the oh so twee avant-gardeness of the dialogue, let me assure you that it plays far more intriguing in person. Especially when considered against the couple’s obvious disconnect. She seems to want emotional closeness and is suffering by not achieving it with him. In a series of solo monologues, some only one sentence long, she stands center stage with a microphone and drops heartsick bombs on us. “Close your eyes”, she tells us. “Are you alone?”

He, on the other hand, snipes at her for not having answers and worse still encourages her to communicate, but walks out on her thoughts mid-sentence. Is he Eliot’s Prufrock, afraid of intimacy, forcing the relationship into crisis? Missing out on love? For it seems that there was once love between them, as shown when the couple sweetly acts out the “Time of My Life” climax scene from Dirty Dancing using their fingers as stand-ins for the dancers. Later, when the song comes on again, we are given a beautifully metaphoric umbrella dance that I believe was meant to signal the end of their coupledom. Or maybe I’m wrong about the whole thing and Hays and Flower just really like Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey.

While the couple goes through whatever it is they are experiencing, a small-town radio host occasionally breaks through the action to speak of things mysteriously missing from townspeople’s homes. The couple might not know who the culprit is, but we do. The other half of this one-hour play concerns the toque-wearing, blanket-clad, woods-dwelling hermit (Hays doing double duty) who in the dead of night sneaks into the couple’s home and takes small items. Socks, pants, a spoon are all lifted from the house and, in a very clever turn, put to non-traditional use by the hermit. Sitting in the sun by a lovely stacked newspaper tree (kudos to whoever created it since the program lists no set designer), accompanied by serene birds singing, the hermit finds use for his booty. The socks become hand warmers, the pants roll up as a neck pillow and the spoon is used as a mirror. Does he need these things? And why are they taken from this couple’s house? We don’t know since the hermit doesn’t speak, but we are fascinated by his process nonetheless.

The absence of the missing things is noticed by the man and woman, each of whom feels as if he or she may be going crazy, while constantly questioning the other with veiled accusations about the items’ whereabouts. Perhaps she sees the losses as emblematic of her loss of him. Perhaps he views the missing items as just one more example of things he can’t connect with.

Once there is no more to steal and no relationship left to miss, the hermit finally speaks in a matter-of-fact but intensely compelling monologue to close the show. He explains all without explaining too much and tells us why he’s chosen this life, how he feels about his theft, and most of all shows us that the things one person misses can be the things another person thinks about not at all. Is the hermit, then, Prufrock to the extreme? The utmost fulfillment of a man’s second-rate status, cut off from mankind? Once again, all I can offer is a perhaps.

The verdict:

The audience reaction to the end of the play in the performance I saw was interesting. Even after the lights came up and Hays and Flower took their bows, people sat in their seats not knowing if the show was really over or if this was just another offbeat twist.

I’ve no idea how many of them went home and really thought about the show, or, even if they did, how many people took meaning from it. Even after working through my thoughts in this review, I’m not altogether certain I’m on board with what the creative team was selling.

And I’m okay with that.

Even at their most bizarre, Hays and Flower are immensely intriguing performers, drawing us into their characters’ tics and quirks. While not all the kooky ideas work (the running around with flashlights went over my head) and not all the dialogue lands (her short repeated song about how the sky holds together read trite to me), there are moments of real beauty in idea and execution in this show. A show, I might add, that never lost my attention even when I had no idea what I was looking at.

So yes, I missed some of what was being shown, but ultimately I’m very glad this is a show I didn’t miss.

things missing/missed runs through May 28 at Obsidian Theater, 3522 White Oak. For tickets, visit $20 - $30.

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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman