Self Quest

Vivid dreamscapes, often disturbing and completely mesmerizing, have been faithfully rendered in Anthony Cerrato's fantasia Under the Sign of the Hourglass…, which was inspired by the fantastical short stories of Bruno Schulz. The Polish writer's story collection Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass deals largely with a young man's desire to know himself through memories of his childhood and the frustration that that quest ultimately brings. Searching is a key element of Schulz's work (he published two story collections during the 30's) and of this piece: Joseph, the young man, searches frantically for "the Book," an ur-text of sorts that seems to contain all that he wants to know. The Book is illusive, to be sure, but is also at once powerful and fragile.

In one late scene, Joseph tears apart a book in rage, perhaps because he now understands that "the Book is a myth in which we believe when we are young, but which we cease to take seriously as we get older," as his frenzied father, Jacob, has warned him. Joseph's search is one that may well last until he is dead; the penultimate scene, a dark exchange between Joseph and his father, involves a ghoulish revelation that seems to evoke both life and death.

Every visual stimulus in this surrealist fantasia—from petticoats and lamps to drapes and book spines—works together to present a harmonious palette of oatmeal, gray, and birch brown that is accented with a shocking, violent red. Before our minds grasp the general narrative, our eyes recognize the hauntingly resonant color schemes that separate this place from our waking life. Annie Simon (costumes), Owen Hughes (lights), and Cerrato (set design) display a triumph of theatrical collaboration that communicates the texture of Joseph's psychological journey (or descent).

The ensemble cast deserves just as much praise. As a group, the members make a deceptively physical performance seem easy; they tumble and fall gracefully like acrobats. In several scenes, the cast performs in a kind of precise unison, turning their sounds and movements into an agitated soundscape. The performance begins with all seven characters draped on top of one another on a long bench. Slowly they awaken and regard us and one another, only to collapse back into sleep or unconsciousness at several points during the evening.

Rob Skolits (the mad, frenzied father) and Stephanie Taylor (the coolly distant mother) evoke the kind of unspoken gender warfare that seems to bubble beneath the surface of Schulz's work. Paulina and Polda (Cady Zuckerman and Sarah Politis), along with the family's tyrannical maid, Adela (the arresting Vivian Smith), are all coquettish, sensual women who tease the men without having to say a word. Mother's red hair and Adela's red lips (not to mention her lusciously full cleavage) do all the talking. Actual sex is a non-subject, but the agony of desire is present in nearly every scene. John Okabayashi rounds out the fine cast as several smaller characters, including the gentleman caller Schloma, who crumples Joseph's drawings without warning.

Words like "fantasia" and "surrealist" might repel the casual theatergoer, but they shouldn't. Even for those not familiar with Schulz's fiction (which I wasn't, until I had to write this review), it is possible to empathize with the distress that searching fruitlessly brings and the innate desire to know where we've come from, despite the show's lack of a clear narrative. The desire to know gives Joseph forward momentum, although he is taunted, teased, and discouraged at every turn.

Seeing this show, I was reminded of another play, Spring Awakening, that is beginning its run at the Atlantic Theater and that I saw only a few days before. Like Hourglass, that play also reimagines texts conceived at another time and supposedly for another historical moment. Frank Wedekind, writing during the turn of the 20th century, exposes the consequences of societal sexual repression. Director Michael Mayer and songwriter Duncan Sheik dramatize the angst that the show's young protagonists feel, with pop-rock ballads and American Idol vocals.

In both cases, we see bits of ourselves onstage, and, because of the excellent stagecraft, we can sometimes bridge the gap between "us" and "them" that both the fourth wall and time have created.

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