Their mission, which The Talking Band challenged themselves to accept: to construct a play around a set first created by a talented visual artist and designer, Anna Kiraly. Their result, the quirky Flip Side, is a two-dimensional piece exploring the surfaces of and gaps (or at least slivers) between two disparate, yet somehow connected, worlds. Don’t ask whether that means function follows form, or vice versa, or even which is which here. The best one can hope for is trying to be amused by its busy characters, terrific visual effects and cutesy music. The Hungarian-born Kiraly’s cubic set design is appealing especially in its mutability, as it evolves throughout the play, written by Ellen Maddow and directed by Paul Zimet, co-founders of The Talking Band. The set, being reconfigured by the actors and/or projected upon, is probably the play’s most intriguing and developing character. The geometric shapes become rooms, outdoor walls, or part of the background scenery. The set piece’s moveable, extendable parts seem to be constantly in flux by reshaping, adding scrims or plastic sheeting on which to project larger-than-life images or to provide other interactions with the actors. The creative use of the projected images is captivating, with the video also designed by Kiraly.
The play explores the collision (or at least co-existence) of two worlds, one of a Brooklyn Heights promenade-type of public space, called Drizzle Plaza, and the other, the crowded home of an extended family named Waterfall. (Hence all of the water imagery, more on this later.) Both sides house unhappy people with their share of domestic squabbles and general dissatisfaction with life. Billed as a comedy of “longing, misperceptions and mismatches,” the action seems too contrived and cartoonish to make much of an impact other than a visual one. The songs only heighten this effect, with a kind of sugarcoated, superficial sound.
The actors are given plenty to do, and they do play their various roles to the hilt, especially Will Badgett as old biddy Aurora and Uncle Oscar & Sue Jean Kim as Celeste and Cherimoya Waterfall, but overall, most characters seem fairly flat as written. At times they also are annoyingly shouty. With all the running around and doubling roles and funny costumes, I couldn’t help but picture the opening credits to The Simpsons, with the family members scrambling in from different places to wind up all together on the ubiquitous couch. I guess these characters are longing for something, but it doesn’t seem like there is much investment, or actual stakes (other than the writer’s manipulations in trying to tie it all together). From this, hilarity is supposed to ensue. A bit of puppetry designed by Ralph Lee and operated by Badgett and Kim is a bright spot amid all the chaos.
There’s plenty of water imagery, which works nicely as a special effect when characters are swimming, discussing the flooding out of a meddling downstairs neighbor, or when swept out of a neighborhood café and tossed unceremoniously into the street by inexplicable rising waters. There’s quite a bit of overlap made between inside and outside elements, natural and unnatural spaces. But there seems to be no real mystery or fascination about the oddity of these spaces that the characters inhabit (or the crossing over thereof), just a kind of general acceptance about it. Magic glasses, telescope powers, blips in their sightlines and/or consciousness all seem to be set up to entertain and amuse, but I wish there were something more interesting to see than fairly predictable people spying on each other, having nothing much to gain or lose, to whom “weird” things happen. It’s a laudable, ambitious effort, but maybe less maneuvering and a bit more wonder could have ultimately served this experiment better.