This Thursday, a one-act play set in the "not-too-distant future" begins a three-day run at Off Center for the Dramatic Arts in Burlington. Phineaus' Tl, which has a "dual plotline," is written and directed by 24-year-old Burlington native Grady Shea, who also plays the titular character. It's the Skidmore College graduate's first foray into theater production in "the real world." And, while the one-hour production is at times confusing, it is packed with carefully rendered warnings about society's resistance to change and the pitfalls of condemning creative thought.
The show is part of the inaugural season of Original Content at Off Center, a crowdfunded series of shows by Vermont artists that kicked off earlier this year. This is Shea's first venture with his newly formed On the Deck and In the Air production company.
Off Center's pseudo-black-box theater — the roughly 60-seat space has a sloping floor that leads to a small stage with curtained wings — provides an intimate viewing experience. Phineaus' Tl opens with a line that is repeated frequently throughout the show: "Comrade, you are looking well, do you feel as well as you look?" Which receives the rote response "Why yes, comrade, all is well under the great light."
In the scenes involving the "comrades," the viewer gets a sense of a dystopian future in which a council of elected officials rules the population. As we later learn, these officials are bent on maintaining the status quo despite their professed interest in electing newcomers.
Phineaus is introduced in the opening scene as he attempts to converse with another comrade, saying, "My slumber of late has been restless," in response to her inquiries about his well-being. She quickly shuts down Phineaus' attempt to connect beyond the superficial greeting.
But remember, this is a dual-plotline show. The archaic tone of the first plot helps delineate between the two overlapping stories, as do the pink-and-gray sashes worn by the comrades. When the second storyline is introduced, viewers witness a moment of adolescent rebellion and the attempt of a young girl, played by Alex Spencer, to connect with her academic, withdrawn brother, played by Justin Gentry.
This story arc follows a family as it navigates a polluted world. Protective clothing and masks are necessary to survive in the contaminated environment, strict curfews are enforced, classrooms are run by Instructatrons (large silver machines that attempt to educate the unwilling youth), food is rationed, and "starch blocks" are common on the dinner table. We later learn that the father, portrayed by Steve Crimy, works in a salmon fishery that is harvesting early owing to a water shortage. The prospect of fresh fish after years of starch blocks proves very exciting.
Each member of the nine-person cast plays multiple roles, appearing as the sash-clad comrades, members of the family and the siblings' classmates. (A few scenes occur in a classroom setting where students mock Gentry's character, Colton, for his love of learning.) The black walls of the tiny theater make for an almost surreal experience, leaving the viewer suspended in darkness between scenes. A sparse set composed mainly of plastic chairs, one desk, a fabric fish tank and the bulky Instructatron ensures that the focus remains on the players.
It's an especially useful effect in scenes such as the one between Phineaus and his love interest, known only as Comrade 8 and played by Gianna Kiehl. They experiment with the sounds created by plucking an elastic rope, each reveling in the other's interest in, and understanding of, the variations in pitch they can produce. From that short scene, the viewer understands the rigid nature of their world, infers that perhaps music isn't taught or understood there, and sees a connection form between two inquisitive minds trapped by the restraints of their society.
As the play continues to bounce between plotlines, Comrade 8 nominates Phineaus for the council, which is quick to dismiss her proposal. Its members unleash a stream of criticisms, calling him blasphemous and crazy for his outside-the-box thinking.
Later, Phineaus attempts to tell his comrades about a dream in which he traveled through space beyond the frequently mentioned "great light" and realized that their world is just a speck on the floor of another world, and that world is a speck on the floor of another, and so on. The comrades' dismissal of his dream will have unfortunate consequences.
That scene is the most direct illustration of Shea's core concept in Phineaus' Tl. "The heart of it is how we treat outsiders, and how we treat radical thought and radical ideas," he says in an interview. "The invention of the wheel, the invention of [the concept of] gravity ... At the beginning, these were thought of as completely heretical, terrible, devil's ideas."
"I really wanted to push that button — that it's very difficult for a radical idea to become mainstream," Shea continues. "And the people who have new ideas are often pushed aside because the status quo is more important than evolution and progression."
Audiences can expect his storylines to connect in a poetic twist — an example of how Shea approaches his subject matter with clever writing and a sharp directorial eye.
Phineaus' Tl is both an ode to the necessity of innovation and creativity and a warning about the consequences of vilifying those who try something new. m
The original print version of this article was headlined "Future Tense: Local Play Considers a Dystopian Outcome for Innovators"