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Berkeley Daily Planet, August 8, 2006


The Theater: ‘Typographer’s Dream’
a Fruitful Collaboration

-- By Ken Bullock

The Typographer’s Dream, Encore Theatre Company’s production of Adam Bock’s play, at Ashby Stage in collaboration with the Shotgun Players (Bock’s closely associated with both troupes), opens with absence that’s sketchily filled in with some undreamlike folderol.

A long, empty table faces the audience, with three nameplates on it, reading “Typographer,” “Ethnographer,” “Stenographer.” On the long table and a side table are purses, coffee cups, Kleenex, stacked extra cups. There’s pounding at a side door. A couple comes in and talks inaudibly, then leaves. The woman, with a rollaround travel bag, reappears, disappears again, reappears once more, switches chairs at the table, and sits down behind “Ethnographer.” She’s joined by a man in a suit, who sits behind the “Stenographer” plate. There’s a series of light checks, with the crew apologizing for glitches. Fingers tap, there’re nervous smiles and much impatient body language. Finally, a door slams out in the lobby of the theater; a bicycle comes in, as the panelists stare, and are joined by The Typographer (apparently), who sits down with her helmet still on, disgorging her bag and banging its contents on the table.

Scarcely a word—and the audience has been smiling, then tittering, finally laughing.
The three introduce themselves by profession, then begin to engage in a kind of verbal leapfrog—less a round robin presentation or conversation than overlapping monologues that seem at once to vie with each other and yet be almost oblivious.

Each relates anecdotes, professional in-jokes (with all the attendant chagrin), musings and random thoughts about work. Personal history begins to get mixed in; confessions are enacted (or re-enacted). The shifting “presentations” become loopier and loopier, until asides and distractions become the main attraction—unless you can say, oxymoronically, that a kind of featuring of Attention Deficit Disorder becomes the primary focus, with a lot of personal psychology spilling over from something like Freudian slippage of these absolutely banal in-public “talks”—that sound more like the characters talking to themselves.

Scenes from private life are summoned up and performed by the participants, pinch-hitting for each other’s Significant Other. Finally, it all comes loose, with the conservatively dressed, primly mannered Ethnographer, who’s been pitching the importance of Geography versus Social Studies, lip-syncing and dancing wildly to a disco number, expressing all that pent-up emotion—just as disheveled as these professionals have gradually rendered the properly institutional set (James Faeroon’s design).

The audience relates to all this in a way slightly reminiscent of that film of a conversation about the death of conversation, My Dinner with Andre—it’s interesting to see what catches different spectators’ attentions. On opening night, one audience member (who turned out to be a business school student) grinned raptly through The Stenographer’s routines (including his fetishism as he describes and fondles a court reporter’s machine), while two young ladies laughed uproariously with recognition at The Ethnographer’s flattest, most deadpan academic truisms.

The trio—Aimee Guillot as Margaret (yes; they have names) The Typographer, Jamie Jones as Annalise The Ethnographer and Michael Shipley as Dave The Steno (who’s really a court reporter, but thinks it best to be introduced otherwise)—all execute well, “execute” being the operant term, as they sometimes seem to be a bundle of professional functions and tics (both characters’ and actors’), syncopated by apperception. Their sense of ensemble, even while ignoring each other, is good, and the timing (on the beat, but accented by the chiming of three different internal clocks) is impeccable—as directed by Anne Kauffman.

Adam Bock has an ear for the banal and an eye for the insouciant. He’s cleverly set up the tableau of the play as a triptych in which the colors and motifs run together. And the designers (including lights by Chris Studley) have made it look just right.
But in the end there’s less than meets the eye, just as the playwright strives, without appearing to strive, to lift his work above appearances. The play’s a comic tour-de-force in form, not so much developed from its basic material of verbal and physical mannerisms as by putting these basic materials into a conceptualized scheme, then offhandedly moralizing on them through the hapless characters. Not quite a human puppet show, it’s more a sitcom in abstract, going through the same changes as comedy sketches, less Harold Pinter than Bob Newhart; not “playing against the changes” as per Coleman Hawkins’ dictum, as much as running through the scales with the same head.

The Typographer’s Dream offers an intriguing possibility of playing against “dead air,” as in broadcast, of realizing a music onstage of white noise from crossed “Strindbergian” monologues that plucks a kind of virtual dialogue from the most colorless narrative. Western theater begins with the dream of a discourse in the overtones of Euripides’ (and Plato’s) dialogues. This Dream is more a daydream, the glare of light in a tunnel, reverse of the old LBJ cliche—but is there just more bright light at the end of it? A problem in contrast: maybe the playwright neglected a fourth, even more self-conscious character: The Videographer.

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