Don't go to The Question looking for answers. The new play by Burlington writer John Milton Oliver, which will have three more performances this week at Off Center for the Dramatic Arts, mostly does the asking. If the characters in this so-called "wordplay" answer anything, they also insert doubt or a failure to commit, leaving the audience slightly unsettled. But usually in a good way.
An installment in this year's OC@OC — Original Content at Off Center — series, The Question is directed by Jordan Gullikson and produced by Green Candle Theatre Company. The idea behind the series is to present and promote new works by local playwrights — some emerging, some more experienced — in an organized season. Or, as the mission statement puts it, "to incubate brave, original theater and to grow the breadth and scope of Vermont's artists, audiences and enthusiasts."
Just five years ago, such a development might have been a pipe dream for the founders of the affordable, cozy black-box theater; now it's a reality. No single artistic director pulled OC@OC together; instead, a consortium of artists united to herd some of Vermont's creative cats.
Oliver, 33, is a poet, playwright, actor, sometime fiction writer, and full-time teacher and co-administrator at Centerpoint, an alternative school with classes in South Burlington and Winooski. "Regular schools are not meeting their needs," Oliver says of his 11- to 21-year-old students. "They have trouble making healthy relationships."
The same might be said for the characters in The Question. Constructed as a series of vignettes, the play lacks a conventional narrative arc, yet an existential thread sews it together. Its essential ideas are central to human and literary history: navigating relationships and searching for meaning. Nothing new there — yet Oliver has crafted an original way to play out his themes.
It all grew out of a little pressure from Aaron Masi. The Green Candle board president called Oliver last February to say there was an open slot in September in the inaugural OC@OC. Did he have something to fill it? Oliver committed and decided to write something new. Pressed to give Masi a title, "I said, 'The Question,'" Oliver recalls. And so a theme was born. "I'm a student of Rilke and Robert Frost — I like questions," he adds. "I try not to define anything too finitely."
In that respect, his play succeeds. It's never entirely clear what the work is about. This observer came away with more feelings than facts, and Oliver is OK with that. "Overall, the entire play takes place between the asking of a question and its answer," he says. "Sometimes it's simple and loaded, like 'You want to get a drink?' Then it drills down into why a character may ask, or answer, the way they do."
That "why" generally stems from childhood, from family relationships, behaviors and rote responses that get "passed down," Oliver says. He illustrates that principle to hilarious effect in one of the vignettes featuring three generations. Audiences will not soon forget the memory of bewigged Ben Aleshire as the crotchety grandmother. Beyond its humor, the scene lays the workings of memory bare: We see how it becomes fractured over time, and how responses persist based on erroneous recall.
The Question's scenes feature any number of its five cast members in various juxtapositions: parent and child, spousal or dating couple, customers and waiter, a writer and his typewriter. The mood shifts from, as Oliver says, "humor to anxiety," and back again. And, though the play is grounded in what might be called realistic behavior — we can see ourselves in the characters' foibles — it sometimes slips into manic surrealism. To their collective credit, the actors, with various degrees of prior stage experience, take this in stride.
In addition to Oliver (Paul) and Aleshire (Chorus A), the players are Dre Idle (Eden), Pamela Formica (Chorus C) and Anna May (Chorus B). Those designated as "chorus" each perform multiple roles — "a wonderful challenge for an actor," says Oliver. "But it also speaks to all these aspects of people." Meanwhile, a relationship of sorts evolves between Paul and Eden.
Always, the playwright poses some kind of question. By the last scene — the longest by far in this single-act production — we begin to feel that previous ones have built to an emotional crescendo. Spoiler alert: The passion that ensues between Paul and Eden is mitigated by, as Oliver puts it, "a pullback at the last second."
The humor in this play saves it from becoming too earnest, heady or affected. Laugh-inducing dialogue comes just often enough. Gullikson, who is also credited with set, costume and lighting design, introduced ingeniously silly props that serve equally to poke fun at the production's minuscule budget: handheld labels or cardboard boxes signify a chair, a typewriter, a poem, a centerpiece, a bored hostess and so on.
Humor is associated with Oliver's very name — and yes, he gets the "not that John Oliver" thing a lot. As for "Milton," it's a tribute not to the 17th-century author of Paradise Lost but to his dad; when Oliver began using his full name at age 20, "it was sort of a nod to him," he says. So his auspicious moniker doesn't explain why this Middlebury College economics major turned to writing poetry, got a master's in English, or later cofounded Howard and Pine Poets. Never mind why he pens plays.
Perhaps it is why Oliver admits to having "a deep fear of pretension." Which in turn is surely why his character in The Question reads a sonnet he's ostensibly just written and immediately declares: "That is some pretentious, navel-sucking bullshit."