The Joys of Fantasy, presented by the Ordinary Theater, is one part experimental drama, one part indie rock concert, one part multimedia spectacle, and one part Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The sum total of this mélange of elements? A thrilling, memorable, thought-provoking exploration of our existential situation in a complex city in ever-changing times. The piece opens with an extended framing device, setting out both the play’s conceit – as an Our Town “revisited” – and waxing poetic on the themes inherent in such a project. This is done in a clever and profound way: actors quote from famous texts, they reference the audience and the fact that this is a play, and they reveal the play’s conclusion. All of these postmodern techniques combine into a clear and relevant reflection of what theater should be – a discussion distinctly grounded in the place and time in which it is presented but one which resonates universally by reflecting on what it is, quintessentially, to be human.
The stage manager device is maintained from Wilder’s work, but this lofty duty is split between three actresses who all comment on the action that takes place, and occasionally engage within it, but are never directly involved in the lives of the main characters. The central plot line centers around a young couple – Scott and Teri – who are torn apart after a phone call from Michael is received. Michael has previously informed our heroes both that they will never see one another again and that Teri will kill him (Michael) at the end of the second act.
All of the performers are compelling to watch. They portray “themselves” within this imagined world, supposedly playing out the fates that the text has laid out for them. In doing so, The Joys of Fantasy blurs the line between fiction and reality and asks the very real question of which way the mirror faces between art and reality. Do events happen on stage because they once happened in the real world? Or are they impelled to occur in life because they once transpired on stage?
The piece could use some tightening up. The second act is quite long and much of it feels like a digression. Despite this weakness, the play’s final moments are powerful and surprising, affecting the audience in such a way that the spectators can exit the house full of ideas to explore and impressed with the capacity of theater to express them.
This is an Our Town for the twenty-first century. It also seems to be an Our Town for the small town of the big city – transplanting the issues at stake in Wilder’s play to the Big Apple, throwing these questions into relief against an oft-complicated backdrop.
In Wilder’s Our Town, death is inevitable because that is life. In The Joys of Fantasy, death is violent and sometimes forced, yet somehow still seemingly preordained. This play is a brilliant theatrical experiment on universal themes. It both makes these issues relevant in a new day and age and reminds us that, while the external trappings of human existence may change, the fundamental, essential elements remain the same.