Ham and Cheese and Storytelling

Upon entering the performance space for No Dice, a former indoor playground in Tribeca, audience members have to make a choice: ham and cheese or peanut butter and jelly? This is just the first of several questions posed by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s exuberant new production. With its emphasis on engaging audiences through a close examination of everyday life, the experimental company is a good match for Soho Rep, which aims to produce unconventional theater that embraces performer/audience relationships. No Dice, with an original development process and a performance style at once vivacious and intimate, succeeds on both accounts.

Nearly everything about No Dice is ambitiously innovative, beginning with its script: there isn’t one. Or, rather, there is no written script from which the actors work. Instead, the text of the four-hour play comes from over a hundred hours of recorded phone conversations conducted with family and friends of creators Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, directors of both Nature Theater of Oklahoma and No Dice. Rather than memorizing transcriptions, the actors listen to the conversations, which loosely focus on livelihood, life aspirations, and the nature of storytelling, on headphones.

That technique calls to mind the work of playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith, who creates texts from interviews and trains herself to recreate her subjects’ speech by listening to their recordings. But with ridiculously goofy accents and overemphasized intonation, Anne Gridley, Robert M. Johnson, and Zachary Oberzan are not listening to their source material in an attempt at realism.

Likewise, whereas Smith edits her work in an attempt to examine dramatic revelations about her subjects’ lives, the conversation selections depicted in No Dice reveal a collection of people mired in the mundane. Therein lies a central enigma of the play: within the drawn-out caricatures, the daily lives of the people who inspired them become startlingly evident.

No Dice’s ensemble of dedicated actors appears to have a boundless store of comedic energy. The highly stylized nature of their performance extends into their movement, which involves seemingly random sequences of incongruous gestures, as well as their simple yet outlandish costumes. From wigs to facial hair to funny hats, a spirit of play pervades nearly every aspect of the piece.

Among the few components of the production not infused with a sense of playfulness are the words themselves. From a discussion of how many office breaks cubicle dwellers are permitted to chats about indulgence in alcohol, the ordinary concerns articulated by the performers contrast with their exaggerated performance style and raises interesting questions about what is – and isn’t – required in order to make entertainment out of the everyday.

Designer Peter Nigrini’s set, which features rich green curtains hung over ionic columns and adorned with gold comedy and tragedy masks, contrasts with the space’s florescent lights and padded walls, providing a nice frame for the production’s investigation of theatricality. A found space, as opposed to a conventional theater, is an important component of the play, though there is little about this particular space that feels organic or inextricable from the production.

For the majority of the performance, audience and actors are in the same light, an effect that creates an intimate atmosphere, not an intimidating one, largely because of the warmth of the performers. In addition to the three main actors, Thomas Hummel and Kristen Worrall appear onstage off and on throughout the production, sometimes playing music and mostly staying silent. Their presence is essential to the ambience of the play. Hummel’s perpetually shocked expression and Worrall’s pinched concern make the actors appear less alone within the world of their performance while making that world more accessible to the audience.

The intimacy of the production is further enhanced by Liska and Copper, who do everything from appearing briefly onstage to making sandwiches to introducing the production. Audiences should note that when Liska jokes in the curtain speech that they’ve saved the best parts for the second act, he isn’t really kidding. Not that the first act is lacking. On the contrary, the first act feels like a complete play in and of itself, and for a less ambitious company, it would be.

At nearly four hours, No Dice is a demanding production. It helps that the second act utilizes a lot of repetition, guiding audiences through the material while leaving ample room for contemplation. Then, just when the repetition begins to grow old, everything changes. The final moments of the production, in addition to granting audience members welcome insight into the creation of the piece, are transcendently joyous.

Were it shorter, funny costumes and exaggerated diction would make No Dice a charmingly off-kilter comedy. Creating such a lengthy production forces audiences to either engage more deeply with the material or check out completely. Audiences interested in the former will find themselves richly rewarded.

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