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Four Rooms Waking Studio Theatre

Remaining performances: Thursday, July 24 @ 6:00 PM; Saturday, July 26 @ 9:00 PM; Sunday, July 27 @ 6:00 PM

They say: A one-of-a-kind theatrical experience, Four Rooms Waking captures one gripping day in the lives of four sets of unique characters. By turns haunted and hilarious, they will lead you from Algiers to London, New York to Havana – questioning sexuality and nationality, war and liberation. Will love or necessity hold sway?

Chris’s take: One palpable trend in contemporary theater has been the slicing and splicing of multiple narratives. In Arcadia Tom Stoppard cleverly weaves together scenes set in a Derbyshire country manor in 1809 and the present day; in 33 Variations Moisés Kaufman similarly but less cleverly weaves together the life of Beethoven, circa 1819, and a contemporary musicologist’s efforts to unravel the past. In the same vein, Four Rooms Waking tells four stories, each set in a different room at a different time and place: Algiers, 1955; Oxford, 1964; New York City, 1967; and Havana, 1975.

The interspersed short scenes offer glimpses of each of the four narratives, none of which feels fully elaborated. Each story line resembles (but really isn’t) a love story in which a woman desires a man. In Algiers, as the National Liberation Fronts fights to oust the French, an Algerian woman who’s been protecting a wounded French soldier struggles with whether to kill him. In Oxford, an anthropologist dreams of a “birdman,” who embodies her Kenyan lover. In New York City, a closeted lesbian pines for a hometown boyfriend, who unlike her has embraced his homosexuality. In Havana, a woman’s lover comes back from the war in Angola too shaken to readjust. If there’s a thread running through these vignettes it’s the practical impossibility of each relationship.

Four Rooms Waking has more the feel of four short stories put on the stage than the feel of four one-acts. For instance, the French soldier retells shooting a woman he knew whom he believed to be cooperating with the Nazis. The literary connection is clear: once the Germans were the oppressors, and the French resisted, but now the French are the oppressors and the Algerians are resisting. But the dramatic purpose is not so clear. Individually, none of these narratives is has an immediately clear dramatic structure, and it isn’t apparent what sets events in motion, or whether the events are ultimately resolved.

And that is this play’s biggest flaw. Regardless of genre, a good play is in essence a mystery story. The audience wants a reason to keep watching. (It’s not for nothing that Oedipus Rex and Hamlet, plausibly the two most famous stage works of all time, are both whodunits.) The mystery here, as with plays with interspersed narratives, is how the pieces will ultimately fit together. And the trouble is that they never do. The piece is staged such that at the end, characters from each plot line appear on stage at once—but there is no compelling synthesis.

The play offers hints of what these stories have to do with each other. Arcadio, the damaged Cuban veteran, refers to the once-upon-a-time optimism for freedom that the Algerian resistance had fueled, suggesting a bit of a link between the Havana and Algiers scenes. But how does that explain the scenes in pre-Stonewall New York, or the anthropologist’s anthropomorphic dreams?

The acting is hit-or-miss. Daniel Kublick is quite good as gay artiste Jack Smith, but flat as a Cuban priest; conversely John-Michael Marrs is completely unconvincing as a Martinican cross-dresser but much more solid as Arcadio. Annie Pries seems well-cast as a bonny Cuban, but ill-cast as a self-loathing lesbian bartender. And here lies a problem inherent to the play: the actors are handed fragments rather than full characters to inhabit. They do the best they can. (Many of the actors are theater students at Princeton, and I couldn’t help feeling they were all emoting a bit too seriously, the way actors in training do.)

This isn’t a show with boisterous rough magic. It’s a carefully rehearsed performance that aspires to be taken seriously. You could do a lot worse, but the pieces don’t cohere.

See it if: You enjoyed 33 Variations.

Skip it if: You enjoyed Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.