Has the state of the world ever seemed so dismal that leaving planet Earth looked like the only practical answer? In Mare Cognitum, a pleasant, but sometimes too gloomy entry in Theatre of the Small-Eyed Bear’s Get S.O.M. repertory merger, three fed-up roommates decide to boldly go where no twenty-somethings have gone before. Faced with the ever-widening precipice of war and full-fledged adulthood, Lena, Jeff and Thomas are immobilized like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, unable to muster up the will to join the protest just outside their window or even to go on a job interview. Jeff has made himself a protest sign that reads “Homo Sapiens Sapiens,” even though the rally is protesting the US government’s imminent bombing of another country, but he has yet to get out of his pajamas. College student Lena distances herself by critiquing the protest, although an unnamed, hipster classmate’s shrewder assessment makes her feel even more academically and politically ineffectual. Thomas the atheist comes to terms with the fact that he has actually been going to confession all these weeks and not to job interviews. Imaginative denial obviously runs high in this apartment, but it takes the depressing news that the bombing has commenced to launch our protagonists into a Quixotic extra-planetary adventure.
Jeff and Lena in particular (played by Kyle Walters and Devon Caraway) show a refined skill in make-believe, staging a “practice” protest in the apartment before unsuccessfully attempting to join the actual one downstairs. In general, playwright David McGee does well to let his characters play with each other and the audience like this; indeed, they seem quite aware when they are reenacting each other’s flashbacks and happily pretend to be secondary characters with enthusiasm. If the tone weren’t perfect, this sort of high style narrative device wouldn’t work, but McGee’s ebullient attitude and lively characters work hard to persuade you that there is nothing weird about it. More importantly, when these three make like Apollo-era astronauts and fly their apartment to the moon, you don’t question it. McGee and director Jesse Edward Rosbrow draw a line between fantasy and reality that is sharp, believable and entertaining.
What does feel out of place, though, are the intensely devastated reactions the characters experience when they return to the same-old, disheartening Earth at the end. McGee obviously intends some reference to the spiritual disillusionment astronauts are said to suffer upon coming back to Terra Firma, but when his high-spirited characters experience heartbreak so totally – like Jeff, who crumples against a wall sobbing – it feels like too much, too quickly. The notion that Lena, Jeff and Thomas are detached enough to pretend to fly to the moon is one thing, but to see them reduced to husks of people when their knowingly make-believe adventure ends is near laughable. In short, things are pretty bad on Earth these days, but they can’t suddenly feel that much worse than before.
Director Rosbrow stages the action convincingly within the confines of a living room, and the world he creates for the characters is particularly accented by a thorough sound design from Jared M. Silver. There is almost always specific environmental noise coming from outside the apartment – the protest, a garbage truck, and later, otherworldly moon noises. Elisha Schaefer’s set design and Wilburn Bonnell’s lighting design satisfy until an underwhelming “Earthrise” on the Moon spoils an otherwise nice moment – though given the level of production and likely budgetary limitations, it almost feels unfair to mention it.
The cast leaps to task as necessary, with Walters giving the most endearing performance as Cowardly Lion-ish Jeff. Caraway’s bossy, inconstant Lena is convincingly vigilant to the point of nuisance, though she softens in some very affecting moments with Jeff. Justin Howard as Thomas is, by design, left out of a lot of the fun, but one of the play’s funniest moments comes when he reluctantly agrees to join the imaginary journey.
Back in the real real world, Mare Cognitum represents another kind of unique escape – the escape from expense. Theatre of the Small-Eyed Bear is actually an amalgamation of Theatre of the Expendable, Small Pond Entertainment, and Cross-Eyed Bear Productions, three theater companies that have banded together to save on theater rental and production costs. A fitting set-up – three companies coming together to play – for McGee’s playful lunar romp.