Monday, August 9, 2010

Fringe Review: I Remember You

by Robert Subiaga

Funny thing about being a writer, people will ask the same questions all the time. Questions like “where do you get your ideas?” No one wants to admit that getting the ideas is the easy part. What really sucks is that you’ll never have the time or energy to get to all the ideas, even the ones you’ve put down in detail.

And since no one’s so brilliant that some of those ideas aren’t had by someone else, it can put you in a prickly spot. A no-win situation. And if the other people don’t do the idea justice, the originality of the high concept is lost--cat’s out of the bag.

But sometimes, just that rare sometimes, no-win becomes win-win.

Then a feeling like satori washes over you. What you’ve just seen is not only as good as you would have done, but better. Way better. Now the pressure is off. You get to be just another appreciative audience member. And as far as the idea goes, all you have to do is point to that other production and tell people: Go see that!

I Remember You. Go see that!

About twenty years ago, I was on the way to the supermarket when I had this odd vision. I anticipated running into a young woman I hadn’t seen in a while, one with whom I’d been very much in love, but we ended on a bad note. I never did run into her, but I had a weird inspiration about what could’ve been a quick cover: saying I’d been in an accident and memories going back many years (including, conveniently, of that instance of me speaking like a psycho) were gone. It led to a whole outline where a guy does that with an ex, only to have them reconnect and fall back in love, with the obligatory dilemma of whether he should fill her in on the truth eventually, and if so, how?

My story probably would’ve sucked. Possibly it would have been mediocre. I Remember You starts with much the same idea and makes it great.

It takes place at an end-of/just-after high school party, the natural place for powerful nostalgia to intersect with the white-hot energy of youth. This is what first caught my attention, knowing even a pedestrian treatment of the subject--which I expected--would still be mildly interesting.

Instead, I Remember You has unexpected depth. Depth that sounds natural. These aren’t characters “wise beyond their years” in that way that often comes across as unrealistic and forced, but dialogue with that wise-beyond-our-years insight we all actually had in those days. The kind where we might inadvertently expound on something that is corroborated in the words of Buddha, or Plato, or a discovery in modern science--except we hadn’t been exposed to them yet and didn’t know how to put them in a refined way, let alone to reason too many steps beyond.

Donny is one of the two leads, the young man with the memory loss. As the play opens he’s sitting on a couch conversing with Erica, his “old girlfriend” from sophomore year, a relationship he can’t recall. In the exchange, with side characters occasionally becoming part of for a few seconds, some questions pop up that are insightful (How is it that he has declarative memory of his school subjects and didn’t have to repeat grades? How can he clearly recall being in grade school with Erica--including things she had herself forgotten for a long time--but not sophomore year?) and doofusy (“Hey Donny, how many fingers am I holding up?”) Yet all the questions, even the idiotic ones are shockingly believable for anyone who’s experienced of that contradictory mix of erudition and immature idiocy at a drunken party.

Jeff Spoo as Donny

Even if nothing else were to work in this play (and it’s the opposite, everything does) Donny and Erica would carry the whole play. Jeff Spoo plays Donny like a down-to-earth, very real bodhisattva, whose situation has forced him into an intelligent but laid-back maturity--more mature for the very way he’s laid-back. You can sense the mental sighs of Donny at the people around them, but he’s not at all disdainful of them. Rather if anything he’s more empathetic, more an authentic friend, even if he’s not just going to go along with posturing or d-baggery. We can sense that somehow Erica was into him in the old days, but this “new” Donny built on the ashes of the old is even better. Donny‘s memory loss is both a curse and a wry blessing.

Victoria Nightingale’s portrayal of Erica is even more than perfect, her delivery and movement so natural and believable I was in shock. In fact, there was a litmus test against which to gauge it almost objectively. The portrayal of Erica reminded me of a very real young woman I also knew and loved (though not the one who inspired the memory-loss cover idea, one much later in my life). Smart but authentic, somewhere between sturdy and willowy the way that can rock jeans and sneakers and needs little makeup or accoutrements. The “tomboy” who’s inarguably feminine. It’d be easy to dismiss my reaction as over-personalized, but the truth is there are a significant number of women out there with just these qualities--most of us have known at least a few. For Nightingale to make Erica that realistic is sublime, and this is an actress to be on the lookout for--though big things to come wouldn’t be surprising for Spoo or much of the rest of the cast.

Victoria Nightingale as Erica

I will say I Remember You ends on a bittersweet note, but how much bitter, how much sweet, and how it ends is worth finding out for yourself.

The script is remarkable in its ability to sneak some really deep thematic treatments in without lengthy philosophical discourse. Functionalist questions of philosophy of mind? Questions about reality and illusion? How critical memory is or isn‘t to who we really are? Choice and second chances? It‘s in there.

But when and if you see it, it might be dense and profound, merely make you curious, or just seem quirky, depending on your background knowledge and experiences. Just know that whatever level you catch it, it’ll never interfere with the story or make you feel insulted for “missing” something.

Which just might be reflected itself in a party game Erica and Donny (occasionally others) play a little, to come up with statements that are simultaneously “literally and figuratively” true. Another weird reflection of reality, as I can think of any number of intelligent games I’ve played with intelligent people at drunken, down-to-earth debauches.

Talking as much as I have on Donny and Erica might give the impression that the supporting performances fade into the background. Au contraire. Not only is each and every supporting character written as very human and worthy of some empathy and understanding--even the crass ones--but the performances and timing and physical layout of the stage and blocking out of the movement are impeccable. Joy Dolo as Brooke is simply hilarious and charming.

I Remember You is the sleeper of the Fringe, a young crew, cast and creators who’ve nailed it. I staked out Fringe Central on Sunday night hoping that I’d run into them, and if I’m lucky at some point I will. To praise them in person, to ask a few questions--just something even better than just “Where do you get your ideas?”

Check out I Remember You at the Minneapolis Theater Garage: Thursday 8/12 10:00 p.m., Saturday 8/14 7:00 p.m., Sunday 8/15 2:30 p.m. Click HERE for more info or to purchase tickets.

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